1 What is flakka?
Flakka is the street name of a relatively new synthetic psychoactive drug. Its technical name is alpha-pyrrolidinopentiophenone or alpha-PVP. Since that is a mouthful and nearly impossible to remember, it is more popularly known as flakka, flocka or gravel. Flakka is coined from the Spanish slang “la flaca” which is often used to describe a pretty skinny girl, especially in the context of clubbing. Drug labs and distributors often come up with cool and hip names for the drugs to attract sales. It got its nickname “gravel” from its appearance. Flakka is often found as white or pink crystal chunks that are likened to aquarium gravel or pebbles. It can be eaten, injected, snorted or vaporized.
It is a newer generation of the illegal group of drugs called “bath salts”. In turn, bath salts belong to a group of chemical compounds called cathinones. Bath salts are made in large quantities in drug labs abroad. Whenever a type of bath salt is classified as illegal, drug labs alter the chemical structure slightly and a new drug is born. One that is not technically illegal. Flakka is one of these drugs. It contains a close cousin, a variation, of MDPV, a key ingredient in bath salts. These chemicals are designed to disrupt the levels of mood-regulating neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine. The result is an abundance of these two neurotransmitters, causing euphoria or a heightened sense of stimulation, energy, and awareness. This is similar to the effects of heroin and cocaine. However, in the process, the chemical does not only disrupt the neurons’ balance, it can also destroy the neurons, causing permanent damage or even death.
Although the government and its agencies can react quickly by placing a temporary ban on the drug, manufacturers have a simple work-around this. They just label the drug “not for human consumption”. The best we can hope for is that potential users will get discouraged. However, putting a federal ban on the drug will take at least several years. Gathering sufficient data to prove its dangers will definitely take time.
2 What are synthetic cathinones?
Synthetic cathinones are popularly called “bath salts”. Synthetic cathitones are called such because they are human-made chemicals, hence “synthetic”, that resemble natural cathinones. A cathinone is a stimulant that is naturally occurring in the khat plant, a flowering evergreen shrub that is native to southern Arabia and in East Africa. Aside from cathinone, it also has two alkaloids and cathine, which are stimulants as well.
There is an ancient tradition of chewing fresh khat leaves in Ethiopia, Somalia, and Yemen where there are khat cafes or mafrishes. Khat is considered a mild stimulant and is used by students before exams, by employees in the morning before work, or at social gatherings. It produces feelings of well-being and mental alertness, along with excitement and euphoria. Khat leaves are chewed and then a ball of partially chewed leaves are kept against the inside of the cheek. Dried leaves can also be chewed, but is less potent, as well as smoked. Despite its being a herbal stimulant, there is also evidence that long-term use or abuse can lead to addiction, and even insomnia, depression, gastric disorder, anorexia, liver damage, and heart attack.
Compared to the natural cathinone, synthetic ones can be much stronger and more potent. Furthermore, these are often marketed at a more affordable price, compared to cocaine and methamphetamine. Additionally, the use of flakka has longer-lasting effects, compared to the other two drugs. Use of cathinones can produce energizing and agitating effects, as well as increased sociability and sex drive, paranoia, hallucination, panic attack, and excited delirium. Excited delirium is a condition of extreme agitation and violent behavior. This can be very dangerous.
Bath salts are white or brown crystal-like powder, packaged in small foil or plastic bags. The substance can be snorted, swallowed, smoked, or injected. And because of government bans on their use, bath salts are often labeled as “not for human consumption”, “plant food”, “phone screen cleaner” or “jewelry cleaner”. There is a variety of bath salts, namely flakka, bloom, lunar wave, cloud nine, vanilla sky, white lightning, and scarface.
3 Where is flakka most found?
Cases of flakka usage were first often found in lower income communities in Florida in 2013. This is because unlike other recreational drugs, flakka is cheap. It is sold for as low as $40 for five grams. This translates to just 80 cents for a single standard dose. Later on, the use of flakka has been observed in colleges. Flakka is typically manufactured in laboratories in China. There, legitimate and regulated chemicals, necessary for producing substances like flakka, are cheap and easily obtained legally.
4 Have people died from flakka?
Yes, there have been numerous cases reported of deaths that are associated with flakka — both from overdose and as a result of its usage. Its use prompts psychotic behavior that often places users at risky and dangerous situations. Flakka users are commonly observed naked, running through moving traffic and even jumping onto cars. Another psychotic behavior exhibited by flakka users is attempting to have sex with trees. It is also difficult to control the exact dosage of flakka. A little misstep in the dosage can quickly mean the difference between getting a high and causing death.
Even when flakka does not cause death, it can lead to severe permanent damage. The chemicals in flakka have the ability not just to disrupt neurotransmitter levels in the brain to cause a high, it can also destroy entire neurons. Doctors are looking at possibly permanent neurological defects in flakka users. Another possible damage is on the kidney. Because flakka causes hyperthermia, the condition of having increased body temperature, it also causes a breakdown in muscles. This releases damaging proteins in the blood and takes a huge toll on the kidneys. Although the extent of the damage varies based on how long and how much of the drug was used, survivors of flakka overdose may be confined to dialysis treatments for the rest of their lives.
5 How addictive is flakka?
Flakka is a stimulant. Its effects on the dopamine system cause it to be highly addictive. It is also particularly unreliable and dangerous. Alpha-PVP is a norepinephrine-dopamine reuptake inhibitor. As such, it causes an increase in the levels of these two pleasure-causing and focus-targeted neurotransmitters available in the brain’s system. By increasing the levels of dopamine, users of flakka experience increased activity in the reward center, generating feelings of pleasure, euphoria, and contentment. Since humans naturally seek reward and joy, this effect makes flakka highly addictive.
6 What happens when you take flakka?
Alpha-PVP or flakka causes euphoria and increased strength and energy. But along with its stimulating effects, it also causes a dangerously elevated heart rate and body temperature, up to 106 degrees. Often, flakka users are seen running naked, presumably because of the increase in body temperature. There is also paranoid delusion and hallucination. At its worst, flakka causes excited delirium, a condition that involves hyperstimulation, hallucination and paranoia. These symptoms can lead to self-injury and/or violent aggression.
7 Can you have withdrawal from flakka?
Like other recreational and addictive drugs and stimulants, flakka also causes withdrawal once a user stops consuming it. The common known symptoms are listed below.
- Suicidal thoughts
- Extreme irritability, agitation or aggression
- Severe fatigue
- Excessive sweating or hyperthermia
- Night sweats
- Unexplained weight gain
- Hallucination and psychosis
- Pupil dilation
- Chest pain, hypertension, heart palpitation and tachycardia
- Shortness of breath
- Shallow rapid breathing
- Abdominal pain
- Bizarre and repetitive movements, seizures or tremors
- Breakdown of muscle
- Liver damage or failure
Because flakka is a relatively new drug, little is known about its specifics. Additionally, withdrawal symptoms vary from person to person, depending on their dosage, duration of use, the presence of other medical and psychiatric issues, age, and genetics. If a person decides to stop using flakka, it would be the best course of action to seek medical monitoring to manage these withdrawal symptoms and ensure good health. Entering into addiction recovery programs and entering treatment centers may also prove immensely beneficial. This is even especially important for people where suicide risk is high.
8 What other drugs are like flakka?
Flakka belongs to a group of drugs called “bath salts”. It is one of the more recent additions to this group. Having said that, its predecessors are pretty similar to it, with synthetic cathinone as their main drivers. This synthetic cathinone is called methylenedioxypyrovalerone or MDPV. It is from the phenethylamine class and has a similar chemical structure to the natural cathinone. Bath salts, like flakka specifically, all inhibit the reuptake of norepinephrine and dopamine in the brain. This produces the feelings of euphoria and allows the users to get “high”. Common street names of bath salts are listed below:
- Blue Silk
- Cloud Nine
- Charge Plus
- Hurricane Charlie
- Ivory Wave
- Lunar Wave
- Meow Meow
- Ocean Snow
- Ocean Burst
- Pure Ivory
- Purple Sky
- Purple Wave
- Red Dove
- Snow Leopard
- Vanilla Sky
- White Lightning
- White Night
- White Rush
Bath salts are also similar to amphetamines like methamphetamine and to MDMA (Ecstasy or Molly) in that they affect the norepinephrine and dopamine reuptake system in the brain.
9 Where do people get flakka?
Flakka is easy enough to find. Some companies are able to sell it freely online, provided that they label it “not for human consumption”. RC-Chemical is an industrial-research chemical retailer based in Shenzhen, China. RC-Chemical is one such company that sells flakka openly online. Another company is ChemNet. Infrastructures like Bitcoin and drug marketplaces like the Dark Web also make flakka trade possible and accessible. Once the order is placed, the product is delivered in discreet packaging. Others are also distributed through gas stations and other dealers.
10 How dangerous is flakka?
Flakka is extremely dangerous. Even though its immediate effects of stimulation and euphoria may be viewed by some as desirable or advantageous, it brings with it some severe and possibly permanent consequences. First and foremost, usage of flakka often triggers psychotic behaviors in users. With loss of reason, users often place themselves in dangerous and risky situations. Such behavior includes running naked on the stress, despite moving traffic. One can easily get hit. And this is not the only way flakka endangers the life of a user. Flakka dosage is also difficult to control. Just a little difference can turn a high into death. Overdose is a very real risk for flakka usage. Aside from these two, flakka may also cause severe and permanent damage in a person’s neurological faculty and kidney function.