Last week, a man named Kenneth Crowder got into a bizarre altercation with the police in Melbourne, Florida, attempting to stab one officer with his badge pin and shrugging off blasts from Tasers before being restrained. He had "sexually assaulted a tree" according to media reports; he was also running around naked and claiming to be the Norse god Thor.
The story went viral in the way many " Florida man" stories go viral, and there was an added hook—Crowder was allegedly high on "flakka," a new designer drug that has been making headlines for the past few months. Some articles have attributed " superhuman strength" to flakka users; one NBC News story claimed it's being called "the insanity drug" by the press. The drug appears to be the 2015 version of bath salts—a somewhat shadowy substance that is supposedly turning people into violent zombies.
What's mostly lost in the media frenzy is that, for the moment, flakka is largely a local phenomenon. Aside from a couple of incidents in central and northern parts of Florida, flakka abuse appears to be concentrated in Fort Lauderdale and surrounding cities in Broward County, according to interviews with law enforcement officials and addiction counselors.
"We're in the epicenter of it," said Kyle Sarrecchia, program director for Fort Lauderdale treatment center Pathway to Hope. "A few days ago a patient group was meditating in a nearby park and they ran into some guy on [flakka]."
Flakka resembles tiny shards of opaque crystals. Its primary active ingredient is a chemical known as alpha-PVP, a variant of the psychoactive stimulant methylenedioxypyrovalerone (MDPV) that is also the main ingredient in bath salts. These synthetic drugs are mostly manufactured in China and mimic an organic class of stimulants called cathinones that are found naturally in the khat plant that is native to the Middle East and East Africa. For centuries, drug users in those regions have chewed on Khat leaves to get high.
According to the DEA, flakka's effects on the human brain and body include an elevated heart rate, hallucinations, psychosis, extreme agitation, extreme paranoia, and convulsions. There are also physical side effects such as involuntary head movements and intense facial expressions, Sarrecchia said.
As is the case with many drugs sold on the street, the people who take flakka often don't know exactly what they're smoking, snorting, or injecting. The labs that create these compounds are often attempting to modify chemicals in order to get around the DEA's list of banned substances said Broward Sheriff's Office spokesperson Gina Carter. "In order to skirt the system, dealers alter the molecular structure by adding other substances to it," Carter said. "It could be anything, which means no one really knows what users are ingesting or how their body will react to it."
The drug landed on the radar of Broward law enforcement officials last year. "Our crime lab analyzed the first case in early 2014," said Carter, adding that flakka use is not just a fad. "We think it is a huge problem."
The sheriff's crime lab found the first traces of alpha-PVP on a small paper tab following the January 1, 2014 bust of an alleged marijuana dealer by the police department in Sunrise, a city in southwest Broward. Vice squad detectives retrieved the small tab, along with 29 grams of weed and 10.5 grams of cocaine, from a safe in the trunk of the arrestee's Mercury Marauder.
Since then, the crime lab has processed more than 100 substances that tested positive for alpha-PVP, Carter said.
Flakka didn't make the news, however, until the weird crime stories started rolling in earlier this year. On February 9, a 50-year-old homeless man named James West was arrested after attempting to break into the Fort Lauderdale Police Station to escape a hallucinatory mob. A month later the cops arrested another alleged flakka fan named Shanard Neely who was also trying to break into the police station because, as he told officers, he "needed to go to jail to get away from the murderers." According to the report, Neely attempted to scale the metal spiked security gate but slipped and impaled his thigh. Fire rescue workers had to cut the metal around Neely's thigh in order to bring him down.
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On April 10, deputies arrested 31-year-old alleged heroin dealer Travis Lee for manslaughter and possession of a firearm by a convicted felon after he accidentally shot and killed his friend Richard Andrews—the first death that's been officially linked to flakka use. According to the arrest report, Lee and Andrews were on a three-day flakka bender when they added molly and half a liter of vodka to the mix. While attempting to unload a shotgun in the trunk of his friend's car, Lee told police, he accidentally fired the weapon as Andrews was walking by. The buckshot struck Andrews in the head, killing him.
"It's super cheap and it's very, very potent," Sarrecchia said. "I just heard dealers are selling two-dollar hits. Some dealers are giving away free hits to people who never tried it."
Pathway to Hope's Sarrecchia said flakka scares him more than any other drug his patients admit to taking. Patients who have used flakka claim the drug gives them a "power high" that is "speedy and euphoric."
In the last 12 months, Sarrecchia estimates, Pathway to Hope has treated three to four dozen people who were using flakka. Most of them are under the age of 40 and had added the synthetic to their daily regimen of hard drugs such as crack cocaine or heroin.
"For some of the clients, flakka becomes their new drug of choice," he explained. "There's one girl who was on crack for 20 years and after one full day of doing flakka, she said she was done with crack."
A big reason Pathway to Hope is coming across Flakka users is due to the drug's easy availability in the streets of downtown Fort Lauderdale. Patients have told him they can buy flakka near a public bus terminal on Broward Boulevard about half a mile away from the treatment center.
"I just heard dealers are selling two-dollar hits. Some dealers are giving away free hits to people who never tried it." –Kyle Sarrechia
Those who know flakka from the apocalyptic news reports may question why anyone would do a drug when it makes them crazy enough to attempt to break into a police station or have sex with a tree, but to hear Sarrechia tell it, the motivations of users are fairly simple: Like other hard drugs, Flakka makes them feel really, really good.
"They describe a feeling of invincibility," he explained. "I had one kid who told me about how he convinced one of his dealers into lending him a bicycle. He then sold the bicycle to another dealer to get more drugs."
Francisco Alvarado is a freelance investigative journalist based in south Florida. Follow him on Twitter.