Written by Laura Davies
In April 2015, Kenneth Crowder was running naked through a neighbourhood in Florida when a particularly attractive tree caught his eye and he attempted, somehow, to have sex with it. When officers tried to arrest him, he resisted, so they tasered him twice, but Crowder simply ripped out the barbs and roared, “I am Thor!” Eventually, however, he was defeated and taken into custody, where it was discovered he wasn’t actually the God of Thunder, just a Florida man high on the designer drug, Flakka.
What is Flakka?
Flakka is a synthetic drug, formally called alpha-pyrrolidinopentiophenone, or Alpha PVP for short. It’s a synthetic cathinone, the natural form of which comes from the plant, khat, which is chewed and used as a mild stimulant in Africa and the Middle East. If you’ve seen Captain Phillips, it’s the plant the pirates are seen chewing before they set off to terrorize Tom Hanks. However, as we’re talking about the synthetic form here, no plants or farming is involved; it’s all mixed up in a lab in China.
The name Flakka comes from the Spanish for skinny woman, la flaca, but this is just marketing. Its other street name is gravel, which makes a lot more sense as it looks like the type of stones you’d find at the bottom of a fish tank. Another distinguishing feature is the smell. When smoked, it smells like dirty socks; when pressed into a tablet, its scent takes on a more vomity note.
Now that I’ve made it sound as appetizing as possible, why did people snort, eat, inject, or even vape it? The obvious answer is, the high.
Flakka works by inhibiting the reuptake of dopamine and norepinephrine in the brain. This causes them to build up, resulting in a flood of euphoria and adrenaline. The initial effects of a low dose are an elevated mood, loss of inhibitions, a feeling of invincibility, increased sex drive, and feeling sociable.
Unfortunately, finding the sweet spot is next to impossible. Flakka is ten times stronger than cocaine, so an overdose can be triggered by just 0.1 grams. For this reason, vaping it is the most dangerous way to consume the drug, as it’s almost impossible to measure how much is being ingested.
Flakka is also illegally manufactured, so strength and ingredients can never be guaranteed. Plus, as tolerance develops, users require more and more to achieve the same high, which quickly leads to some pretty horrific side effects.
The Side Effects
Someone high on Flakka is usually pretty easy to spot. They’ll normally be consumed by intense paranoia, believing that someone or something is chasing them. In April 2015, 34-year-old Matthew Kenney was filmed sprinting naked through traffic. He was attempting to get hit by a car as, he reasoned, this would be the only way to get his imaginary pursuers to stop hunting him.
In February 2015, a man in Fort Lauderdale became so convinced that he was being chased by several cars that he ran to the police station for help. When he discovered it was locked, he started pulling, kicking, and even attempted some impressive mule kicks to try and break through the hurricane-resistant glass.
As unlikely as it might seem for someone high on an illegal drug to actually seek out police, this wasn’t the only case of a Flakka user trying to make it into the Fort Lauderdale police station. In March 2015, Shanard Neely attempted to scale the facility’s spiked fence. Unfortunately, he didn’t quite make it all the way over, and instead managed to impale himself on one of the foot-long spikes.
Luckily for him, a fire truck happened to be on site, so he wasn’t dangling up there for long before he was discovered and rescued. They couldn’t remove him from the fence without risking him bleeding out or severing an artery, so instead, they used a circular saw to cut around him. It took 20 minutes before he was sent to the hospital, still impaled.
Why Are They Nearly Always Naked?
You might have noticed another common theme among Flakka users: they like to get naked. This is partly down to the lowered inhibitions, but mostly due to the effects of the drug on the core body temperature. It triggers spikes of 41oC or 106oF. Not only does this cause its victims to strip off, but it’s also the temperature at which muscle tissue begins to break down. This floods the bloodstream with cellular products and proteins in a process called rhabdomyolysis, which can lead to renal failure and, ultimately, death.
A 37-year old woman, identified only as Stephanie, experienced this potentially deadly side effect after her first use of the drug. Like the others, she thought she was being chased, then got hot, ripped off her clothes, and jumped the height of 3 stories off a bridge and into the water below.
She later recalled, “I just remember being in the water and feeling like I could breathe underwater,” and “I remember having seizures and having just continued paranoia and feeling like people were chasing me and following me and talking about me. I still suffer from nightmares and have to take medication for that.”
Increased body temperature is one of the symptoms of the excited delirium syndrome that Flakka is said to induce. This is characterised by extreme agitation, aggression, and delirium and, in cases of Flakka use, is often accompanied by immense adrenaline-fuelled strength.
Dr Nabil El Sanadi from Fort Lauderdale describes his Flakka patients like this, “They come in hot, crazy, insane, out of their mind and then on top of that, fast heart rate and high blood pressure. I would say of all the drugs I’ve seen — cocaine, amphetamines, heroin, Oxycontin — this is the absolute worst.”
The issue with excited delirium is that it often takes multiple officers to restrain a single patient. It’s also more likely the police will use a sedative or TASER on the victim, both of which have the potential to kill. Especially as Flakka users often have to be shocked multiple times. Outside of Flakka use, excited delirium is an incredibly controversial diagnosis, often being made post-mortem in TASER cases against a disproportionate number of young black men.
The Zombie Drug
Flakka has also gained the name ”the zombie drug,” which most people believe originated from the case of 19-year-old Austin Harrouff. On the 15th of August 2016, he was eating at a restaurant with his family when he became agitated and walked out. They found him at his mother’s house attempting to drink cooking oil and, for some inexplicable reason, took him back to the restaurant.
He walked out again, but this time attempted to make it to his dad’s, 3 and ½ miles away. Unfortunately, on the way, he came across a middle-aged couple hanging out in their garage. Harrouff attacked them both, stabbed them, and then climbed on top of the man and began eating his face. Police were alerted by a neighbour, and it took multiple officers, k-9s, and tasers to bring him down. Sadly, both of his victims died.
Initial media reports speculated that Flakka was the only drug that could’ve caused such a gruesome attack, and it still gets the blame. However, toxicology reports later revealed that THC was the only drug present in Austin’s blood.
So, why is Flakka called the zombie drug if it doesn’t make people eat faces? It’s because it causes some users to develop hypoactive delirium, which makes them move like zombies. They’ll stagger around, twitching, jerking, and catatonic. Sometimes their heads will drop and their arms will unnervingly stiffen and shoot out, other times they’ll collapse and shuffle along the floor. In both cases, the users are almost completely unresponsive and likely to be hallucinating.
Unfortunately, just because there are no officially confirmed reports of Flakka zombie cannibals doesn’t mean the drug doesn’t cause any violence. The combination of a feeling of invincibility and paranoia is a dangerous one that has tragically taken a number of innocent victims.
In March 2018, 32-year-old Camille Balla smoked some weed laced with Flakka. What happened next is unknown, but it ended with her gouging out her mother’s eyes with shards of broken glass. When police arrived, they found Camille in a state veering erratically between eerie calm and shrieking hysteria and her mother lying dead, surrounded by a pool of blood. Her eyeballs were placed carefully nearby on a cardboard box.
The violence induced by Flakka isn’t always aimed at innocent bystanders, though. The surge of adrenaline means users often can’t feel pain, and self-mutilation is a common theme. In 2019, a 35-year-old Brazilian medical student, who was depressed after a break-up, used Flakka. He was later discovered staggering about in the street, covered in blood. He’d gouged out his eyes with his bare hands and attempted to chop off his own penis.
Almost all of the Flakka involved in the Florida epidemic, between 2013 and 2016 came from China. It could be bought online for between $1,000 and $2,000 per kilo and, once broken up into doses, sold on the street for between $40,000 and $50,000. US customs had been attempting to intercept the packages, but it’s estimated that 95% of them were still making it into the country, hidden in tin foil or toys.
Any would-be dealers didn’t even need to navigate the dark web to find it. In one newspaper investigation, reporters found multiple sites that’d sell and ship it to them on the first page of Google. They also included reviews like, “Potent and very worthwhile… I’m completely satisfied as a customer.”
It was so easy to get a hold of that it became a great money-making side gig for college students. In one case, a student who’d been making $30,000 a week and driving around in a $100,000 Lamborghini was arrested but only given a 2-year prison sentence.
Despite the insane profit margin, however, it wasn’t an expensive drug. One dose could be picked up for as little as $5 and was often referred to as “five dollar insanity” by emergency room staff. This was, of course, one of the main reasons for Flakka’s popularity. It was the closest thing to the high of cocaine, but $70 cheaper and much longer-lasting.
The Fight Against Flakka
At the peak of the epidemic, between 2014 and 2015, hospitals were reporting an average of 300 admissions and 60 deaths a month. However, in October 2015, everything changed.
Following pressure from the US government, China cracked down on production and shipments of 116 synthetic drugs, including Flakka. The effect was astonishing and immediate. In Broward County, hospital admissions plummeted from 306 in October to just 54 in December. By the new year, the drug had completely vanished.
Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel said, “I have never seen a drug gain popularity so rapidly and be eliminated so quickly.”
Another reason for the sudden decline in Florida’s Flakka cases was the huge community education effort launched by local authorities. They held nightly meetings to warn people of the dangers, which can’t have been a hard task if they led with, “Flakka will make you want to have sex with trees and cut off your own penis.” Unsurprisingly, the new designer drug lost its appeal.
Is Flakka Gone for Good?
So, is Flakka gone for good? Well, the problem with designer drugs is that the recipes only need to be adjusted slightly to create a whole new chemical and bypass legislation. Just like Flakka came from bath salts and bath salts came from MDMA. This often gives manufacturers a year or more to sell their new formulation until the laws catch up.
There’s also the issue of growing markets. More and more packages are being intercepted from India and Pakistan containing synthetic drugs or their ingredients. Getting China to take the issue seriously took years. By the time the 2015 crackdown came into force, there were 160,000 synthetic drug labs operating in the country, that we knew about. In the emerging markets, we could soon be talking about hundreds of thousands more.
Cases of Flakka use are also still being reported occasionally, and due to the low cost, it’s been making its way into prisons. In 2020, Chester Washington died, foaming from the mouth, after smoking weed laced with Flakka at Bibb Correctional Facility. He’d only been there a week.
Officials have attempted to get drug abuse within the prisons under control, but more cases emerged in 2022, when videos were posted to YouTube showing inmates high on Flakka inside Alabama’s prisons. So, no, the battle with Flakka isn’t over, and the war against synthetic drugs is probably going to get worse before it gets better.
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