Healthy Living

What Is Flakka?

What Is Flakka?

Key Takeaways

  • Flakka is an illegal synthetic drug in most parts of the world.
  • In 2015, 60 people died in Florida because of Flakka use. 
  • A "flakka high" can cause serotonin toxicity, which is characterized by agitation, diarrhea, tremors, hyperthermia, and psychosis.

Flakka is now more popular than ever, with stories about its use spreading to national news channels. These stories range from hilarious to frightening, which makes flakka so interesting. There are stories of people running through the streets naked, which are a bit hilarious. However, there are also horrific stories of people biting and tearing the flesh of other people’s faces. That is why flakka is often called as the "zombie drug".

Flakka is the new drug that is getting common in the US, particularly in the state of Florida. The use of flakka in Florida has become increasingly common since it became available in 2014. The initial reception was actually hilarious, where people would take videos of other people who were high on flakka. Some of the flakka videos uploaded on YouTube were mostly just for fun. It was only later that the negative effects of flakka were discovered.

In 2015, Broward County, Florida, reported 60 deaths due to flakka use. Considering that this number only represents one county and in one state, the total number of flakka deaths for the whole US and the world may be much higher. Aside from its mortality rate, the cases of medical emergencies from Flakka use are much higher. Broward Health (formerly known as North Broward District Hospital) in Florida, reported an increase of flakka emergency cases. According to the hospital’s president, there are at least 100 flakka cases seen in a month.

Drug users usually avoid hospital admissions because they are afraid of getting arrested, which means that there are still more undocumented flakka cases across the states. The negative effects of flakka are becoming more real as the drug gets more common and popular, especially on the streets. Now, there are even community protests in Florida to speak out against the dangerous drug.

In other places, flakka is referred to as "gravel" because it is usually in the form of crystals. These crystals can then be crushed into a powder, which can then be smoked, snorted, injected, or even taken with food.

What is flakka or alpha–PVP?

The active chemical in flakka is alpha-pyrrolidinopentiophenone or α-PVP. It is a synthetic stimulant with similar cathinone effects and is naturally found in khat. Khat is a plant that grows in East Africa and in the southern parts of Arabia. The plant was used five millennia ago in China as a medicinal plant, but the natives in East Africa and Yemen chew the leaves for stimulation.

The synthetic version α-PVP is one of the cathinone derivatives. Other synthetic derivatives of cathinone include mephedrone, amphetamines, and MDMA (ecstasy).

Mephedrone is the cathinone derivative used in making bath salts. The drugs were known as "bath salts" because they truly disguised as actual bath salts. However, the ruse was discovered in 2010. Mephedrone is the main chemical used in the UK to make bath salts while methylenedioxypyrovalerone (MDPV) is more common in the US. However, all bath salts use a cathinone derivative just like α-PVP. Flakka is often known as the "bath salts zombie drug". This drug was a real problem in 2015 when it started to become very popular among young people for a very short period of time.

Amphetamines are also synthetic with similar α-PVP properties. These drugs also have similar methods of administration. They were initially created for medical purposes in treating colds, epilepsy, hypertension, alcoholism, and other medical conditions. Its use for recreational purposes dates back as far as 1936, when users took it for stimulation. During the 2nd World War, the Germans used amphetamines to keep their soldiers awake. After the war, amphetamines spread around the world. The most popular form of amphetamines is methamphetamine or "meth", which was the focus of the acclaimed TV series Breaking Bad.

MDMA is another cathinone derivative just like α-PVP. This drug is more commonly marketed as either "molly" or "ecstasy".

All of these drugs are similar to flakka because they are all cathinone-based.

Flakka is illegal in most regions of the world. Countries like the US, Australia, UK, and Sweden have laws against flakka use. Even countries that do not have direct flakka laws, possession of the drug is still considered as an arrestable offense.

Why is it so dangerous?

The danger in flakka use is mostly the same with what other cathinone derivatives cause such as the "serotonin syndrome". The term "serotonin syndrome" refers to the several symptoms that develop after taking the drugs. These drugs generally affect the serotonin levels in the brain. The symptoms of serotonin syndrome include hyperthermia, agitation, tremors, and diarrhea. When taken in high doses, many of the cathinone derivatives will also cause an altered mental state or psychosis.

Hyperthermia always occurs with flakka use with a body temperature that can rise as high as 105 degrees Fahrenheit (40.5 degrees Celsius). This is why most arrested flakka users are caught with their clothes off. They later described their experience as if their bodies were on fire. Hyperthermia in itself is dangerous because it can lead to brain damage, which could leave individuals mentally challenged for life.

Moreover, flakka can cause the muscles to break down due to hyperthermia, which greatly affects the kidneys. These broken down muscle cells are filtered in the kidneys, which can be a heavy task. The continued use of flakka or a flakka overdose can completely destroy the kidneys, thereby leading to kidney failure, which will permanently require a dialysis. In worst-case scenarios, it can even cause death, which is why the first thing that doctors do to all flakka patients is to bring their temperature down.

However, the most frightening aspect of flakka is its effect of inducing psychosis even on "smaller" doses. Psychosis makes people behave as if they are not in touch with reality in terms of thoughts and behavior. Psychosis causes delusional beliefs and hallucinations as well as changing the way a person behaves toward others, perhaps through paranoia or grandiosity.

The signs of psychosis due to flakka use can be diagnosed through observing people who were high in flakka. Fortunately, there isn’t a shortage of these videos on social media. One of the earliest videos that can be found on YouTube was a woman singing in the rain. She was probably hallucinating. The problem with flakka delusions is that they can be frightening, according to Michael Litterer, the deputy director of a non-profit organization called Prevention Links.

James West exemplifies flakka-induced hallucinations when he was caught on surveillance trying to kick the glass doors of a police station because he said there were strangers who were after him. When his attempt failed, he ran off but was caught. He later explained that the cars on the street were coming to get him.

Others have reacted aggressively like Kenneth Crowder, who was running naked through the streets. Now known as the "Broward Boulevard streaker", Crowder was chased down by the police who had to use a Taser to take him down. Even then, Crowder still had enough strength to charge at the officers. The situation with the police and Kenneth Crowder had clearly shown that flakka can induce high levels of adrenaline.

A 17-year old girl also became a victim of flakka when she broke into a house and then jumped out of the window. Bleeding, she kept on running through the street screaming, "I am God! I am Satan!" Again, police officers had to use a Taser on her, yet she kept on screaming. Later, she was found to have been missing from Cocoa, Florida. She has shown how flakka made her delusional.

These incidents are very common with flakka users, who display various symptoms and always tracing back to psychosis. Psychosis can occur due to other mental conditions such as schizophrenia. In such cases, patients require care to prevent harming themselves. Flakka is so dangerous because it leaves its victims in a psychotic state.

One man in Fort Lauderdale scaled a 100-foot open drawbridge, in which he stayed for hours before being rescued. Another man was arrested for brandishing a handgun while standing atop his roof. Then another impaled his leg while trying to climb a steel fence escaping from his hallucinations. Psychosis is a dangerous state to leave someone in, which makes flakka a very dangerous drug. 

What does flakka do?

The action of α-PVP is to act as a norepinephrine-dopamine reuptake inhibitor. There are several chemicals released into the brain synapses to produce certain effects, but the main ones include serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine. They have numerous functions in the body but they perform essential functions in the brain. As these hormones are produced, they are gradually reabsorbed according to the body’s needs, keeping a person’s mentality in check.

However, α-PVP blocks the reabsorption of these hormones, flooding the brain without a way to turn back. Cathinone and its derivatives have this effect on the brain, but researchers have found flakka’s effect to be stronger. Cathinone can leave the synapses within a few hours, and the hormonal balance returns, but flakka’s interruption causes a long-lasting effect.

With these neurotransmitters flooding the brain, many brain functions are turned up, causing the signs of a "flakka high". Serotonin, for example, regulates the mood, but when in excess, it causes overexcitement. Norepinephrine is responsible for the fight-or-flight response by raising the heart rate and increasing the adrenaline. Too much of it explains why flakka users have so much energy.

What caused the flakka boom?

The main cause behind the boom was the price as flakka. The drug was sold at $5 and even $3 on the streets. Compared with other synthetic drugs, flakka is usually cheaper. Even people living on the streets can afford it.

Detecting the presence of flakka is not easy because it cannot be discovered by drug-sniffing dogs. Even routine urine tests cannot tell whether someone has taken flakka. To make an accurate testing, a gas chromatography-mass spectrometry (GC-MS) is required. However, most local police stations do not have the GC-MS equipment to test for flakka. The difficulty in detecting flakka adds to its widespread availability because smugglers can easily disguise it within fertilizers and insect repellents.

How popular is flakka now?

A bath salt high was a real problem one or two years ago, especially in the US. From the peak of flakka use in 2015, the drug has now become less popular and uncommon. In Florida, which was the US’s Flakka hotspot, there is a decline of flakka cases being reported in hospitals or by the police. The main reason for this is China’s supply deficit. China has reduced its production of flakka, thereby reducing its availability. Within the neighborhood, there was also a conscious effort to eradicate the drug due to many of its harmful side effects. 

The main source of flakka is China, where it is manufactured as a controlled substance. From there, it is smuggled into the US and other countries. So far, there isn’t a huge market for flakka as it is still fairly new and most people don’t know about it. Furthermore, with a dwindling supply of flakka from China, there may not be enough demand for the drug. "Molly" or "ecstasy" is already very popular and users are not looking for alternatives.

Without flakka, the users who were already addicted to it will turn to other similar drugs like ecstasy, creating an increased demand. Since all of these drugs are derived from the same compound, it is possible to end up with a different product. When the demand for a drug gets high enough, you start to see makeshift labs producing the drug, and without the controlled conditions of a proper laboratory, the final product could be different. Such incident can be observed from the recent cases of synthetic marijuana gone wrong, which brought 33 people to the hospital.

Due to the low price of flakka, the users may not be able to afford ecstasy, so they will turn to these makeshift labs that make substandard drugs. The result may be an increased local production of the drug in substandard conditions, leading to even more deaths.