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.
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.”
‘The unknown should scare people. You don’t know where it came from, or the kind of lab it was manufactured in.’