The US Drug Enforcement Administration is trying to crack down on "flakka," a type of cheap, synthetic speed that has fueled hysteria over the past year after being linked to a series of bizarre incidents in South Florida.
Flakka is the street name for a chemical compound known as alpha-PVP, which is classified under the umbrella label of a synthetic cathinone, also known as "bath salts." Like many other synthetic or designer drugs, flakka is mostly manufactured in Chinese labs, sold in bulk online under brand names like "Lunar Wave," "Cloud Nine," and "Scarface," and then sold by US retailers for about $3 to $5 a pop, often with the disclaimer that the product is "not for human consumption." People take it for its powerful psychoactive properties, which mimic the effects of cocaine or methamphetamine, often with disastrous consequences.
Last April, a 41-year old man who was reportedly high on flakka ran naked through the streets of Melbourne, Florida, claimed he was the Norse god Thor, and then tried to fornicate with a tree. When an officer attempted to apprehend the man, he tried to stab the cop with his own badge. In a separate incident, another Florida man ran nude down a busy street in broad daylight convinced that he was being pursued by a pack of German shepherds. One headline claimed the drug turns users into "naked, paranoid lunatics."
Bizarre behavior aside, a medical examiner in Broward County in southern Florida has reportedly seen 63 flakka-related deaths since September 2014. At the height of the drug's popularity last summer, Broward County emergency rooms were admitting over 300 people per month for flakka-related symptoms.
Manufacturers of designer drugs are constantly tweaking the chemical structures of synthetic cathinones to skirt US drug laws. When the DEA proposes banning any drug, they have to specify its exact chemical composition. Getting around the drug ban is easy: It just requires a slight change to the chemical formula and rebranding so online retailers can ship it into the US.
The compounds commonly found in flakka have been under a temporary ban since 2013, and now the the DEA wants to make that ban permanent by slapping a Schedule I classification on 10 chemicals. Schedule I status is reserved for drugs that US authorities deem to have a high potential for abuse and no accepted medical use, including heroin, LSD, and marijuana.
'The unknown should scare people. You don't know where it came from, or the kind of lab it was manufactured in.'
Synthetic cathinones were originally designed to chemically mimic the effects of khat, a plant that grows naturally in parts of Africa and the Middle East with leaves that produce a mild stimulant effect when chewed. But after years of chemical tweaks, the drug has evolved further and further away from its plant-based prototype.
Lawmakers are forced to play catch-up as drug manufacturers change their recipes. Authorities are constantly revamping their testing technology to keep up, meaning some designer drugs enjoy a period of relative legality before the DEA gets up to speed.
Police occasionally encounter "analogues," substances that are so similar to ones that are already banned that they can press charges on the basis of their chemical likeness. But chief DEA spokesman Rusty Payne told VICE News it can be tough to keep pace.
Taking synthetic drugs is "nothing but a game of Russian roulette," Payne said. "The unknown should scare people. You don't know where it came from, or the kind of lab it was manufactured in."
The feds can't pinpoint how many labs are actively manufacturing synthetic drugs like flakka, but Payne estimates there are "thousands."
"We know there are many, but I don't have a specific figure," he said. "Because the sale of these drugs takes place online, it is very difficult to monitor."
Watch the VICE on HBO episodeInside the Rise of Legal and Deadly Synthetic Drugs:
On one supply site alone, guidechem.com, the New York Times found more than 150 Chinese companies selling flakka last summer. The synthetic drug market in China continues to boom, partly because there is little oversight and regulation protecting the country's enormous chemical industry. As a result, drug labs can easily get their hands on chemicals that were originally intended to be used for legitimate purposes, like medicine and pesticides.
"They're manufacturing this stuff like crazy in China," said Payne. "And using us as guinea pigs. We take the bait, and we get a lot of young people who think it's wonderful, sadly."
The popularity of flakka and bath salts has waned in places like South Florida, but the feds are still concerned because cathinones are turning up in drugs sold as MDMA or molly. In some cases, users purchase a capsule with white powder thinking they're getting molly or a purer version of ecstasy, but instead they end up with something cut with flakka or another bath salts derivative. A recent study by researchers at New York University found that four out of 10 people at nightclubs and music festivals who reported using molly or ecstasy also tested positive for bath salts despite reporting no use.
According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, 541 new psychoactive drug cocktails came onto their radar in 2015, eight times more than were reported in 2008. Some drug experts say that the DEA and drug manufacturers are caught in a vicious cycle. Chasing the newest iteration of bath salts forces manufacturers to make more changes, constantly flooding the market with new substances. These drugs have often never been tested on humans, and users have no idea about the long- and short-term effects.
David Sachs, the CEO of Elements Behavioral Health, a network of mental health treatment centers, wrote last year that the DEA's drug bans are ineffective, and that US authorities are essentially attempting to "regulate the unregulatable."
"Until we treat addiction as a disease and address the underlying reasons for the growing demand, no ban — no matter how broad or how diligently enforced — will solve the synthetic drug problem," Sachs said.
In the meantime, some first responders have found ways to deal with a patients who have overdosed or are too high on flakka. An EMS department in Florida's Indian River County will begin equipping paramedics with ketamine, a horse tranquilizer that people abuse recreationally, to help sedate patients who have taken flakka.
Follow Tess Owen on Twitter: @misstessowen