A Global News article on the newest terrifying street drug contained a strange comparison in its first sentence, when the writer referred to "flakka" as "the street version of bath salts." One man apparently impaled himself while on flakka, and another allegedly sexually assaulted a tree before telling police he was Thor. The comparison to bath salts is strange, first because bath salts are the street version of bath salts, and second because bath salts are flakka's direct antecedent in a long line of overhyped drug crises.
It's been happening since at least the early 20th century, when films like Reefer Madness terrified parents everywhere about the marijuana, the menace that would drive their children to commit murder or suicide, or worse, fall victim to "the ultimate end of the marijuana addict: hopeless insanity."
As everyone but young children and sincere far-right demagogues now knows, marijuana may have negative effects on people, but it won't drive an otherwise healthy person to commit heinous crimes or lose their mind. But the climate of fear created by law enforcement and propaganda films like Reefer Madness did its job and allowed the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) to criminalize marijuana, ushering in the first stage of the now-global drug war.
Not all drug scares are as monumental as the marijuana scare or the crack scare of the 1980s, which arguably led to the creation of the prison-industrial complex so overwhelmingly focused on black and brown men that Michelle Alexander calls it the "new Jim Crow." But according to University of Guelph sociology professor Andrew Hathaway, who specializes in drug use and treatment research, most drug scares have the common trait of distracting from the serious and ongoing concerns of drug abuse and treatment.
"If you're going to sustain a larger-scale drug war, you always need to renew that furor," Hathaway said, "and if there's concern about that dying down, that's problematic for media and law enforcement. Keep the message up, and if there's occasional new causes for alarm, I think that serves the purpose of the war on drugs in general, right?"
The frequency with which law enforcement trumpets a new drug menace about to sweep the nation, and with which media outlets give those officials a platform, certainly speaks to Hathaway's point. In the last two decades alone we've seen supposed epidemics of PCP, ecstasy, huffing, tussin'/robo tripping, spice, bath salts, salvia, dabs/shatter, and now flakka. While these drugs obviously have their dangers, none of them have borne out the predictions made about their widespread use.
Caution: doing salvia is a gateway to listening to 90s alt-rock.
"Usually, with these things that are highly dangerous, which it sounds like [flakka] is," Hathaway said. "They have a kind of self-limiting or self-regulating function within drug-using communities. I think the word gets out pretty quick that, you know, any kind of short-lived fun you could have with this has dramatic adverse consequences as well."
Meanwhile, there are still around 2.5-million alcohol-related deaths worldwide each year, and drug treatment is shamefully inadequate in many western nations.
None of this is to say that flakka isn't dangerous, or that the public shouldn't be made aware of a new drug on the black market. But the next time you see a headline trumpeting a wildly popular new drug possessing heretofore unknown levels of danger or toxicity, remember that it's probably not the next crack. Even crack wasn't the crack we were told it was.