Though it first showed up in the United States with a few isolated cases in 2012, flakka exploded onto the scene in South Florida in 2014, particularly in Broward County, per the Miami Herald. Flakka is a designer drug that is synthetic, which means that it is made in a lab, and it is considered a novel psychoactive substance (NPS).

Flakka, also known as gravel, comes from the synthetic cathinone alpha-PVP, which is an amphetamine-like stimulant drug. It is usually sold as a white or pinkish crystal similar to bath salts. It is typically vaporized and smoked, injected, snorted, or eaten for an intense and delusional high.

Under the influence of flakka, individuals tend to exhibit psychotic behavior that often leads to aggression, violence, paranoia, hallucinations, hyperstimulation, and self-injury. A flakka high often induces what is called “excited delirium” and raises body temperature to dangerously high levels, causing people to want to take off their clothes.

In 2014, the Drug Enforcement Administration placed alpha-PVP into Schedule I of the Controlled Substances, making it illegal to possess or use in the United States. In 2015, the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) issued an “emerging trends” warning regarding the surge of flakka in South Florida. Cases of flakka abuse, delirium related to the drug, and deaths involving flakka spiked dramatically in the spring and summer of 2015.

Combined efforts from local law enforcement, community agencies, first responders, and federal authorities were able to curb the flakka epidemic almost as quickly as it began. In 2018, there are virtually no cases involving flakka in Florida or anywhere else in the United States. Flakka is still a dangerous and illegal drug of abuse, but the flakka crisis in Florida seems to have mostly passed.

Flakka at Its Peak

Florida is no stranger to rampant drug abuse. In the 2000s, South Florida was known for its pill mills where shady doctors were pumping out prescription opioid painkillers at record rates. The South Florida Sun Sentinel publishes that between 2007 and 2010, Broward County was considered the capital of oxycodone sales in the United States.

Legislation and law enforcement efforts cracked down on the pill-pushing epidemic in South Florida, essentially shutting down most of these operations. This left a hole in the drug market and a lot of Floridians battling addiction with fewer options. Heroin and illicit fentanyl surged to fill the hole, and this also potentially opened the door for flakka. South Florida is also a hotspot for parties and raves, and therefore party drugs, which may have contributed to the sharp rise in flakka abuse as well.

flakka drug

In 2014, the following counties in Florida recorded the highest number of flakka cases:

  1. Broward County accounted for more than half (55 percent, or 477 cases) of the 870 flakka cases.
  2. Miami-Dade County was second with 145 flakka cases, or 17 percent.
  3. Orange County ranked third with 30 flakka cases, or around 3 percent.
  4. Palm Beach County recorded 29 flakka cases, or about 3 percent.

Asian man under the influence of FlakkaFlakka abuse skyrocketed rapidly in South Florida. In the summer of 2015, the Washington Post published that Broward County hospitals were reporting as many as 12 cases of excited delirium related to flakka abuse every single day. Police were stretched thin, as the drug often makes the user hard to talk down or subdue. It would regularly take three or four responders to manage the situation when flakka abuse was involved. By the end of 2015, there were 63 reported deaths directly tied to flakka abuse in Broward County.

Flakka was being shipped through the mail, and the chemicals needed to make it were often imported from China. The drug was cheap and often dubbed “$5 insanity,” as it sold for $3 to $5 a hit, making it accessible to almost everyone. The homeless population, low-income Floridians, and crack cocaine users were targets of flakka abuse. Since the drug is highly addictive, people would keep going back for more, the Florida Alcohol and Drug Abuse Association (FADAA) explains.

The flakka high lasts for about three to four hours, and it is often unpredictable. Typically, the associated high body temperature can cause the most bodily damage, often resulting in kidney damage.

When flakka is vaporized, it enters the bloodstream rapidly, and this can lead to overdose. Suicides and heart attacks have also been reported fatal side effects of flakka abuse.

Some of the biggest indicators of flakka abuse are the erratic and psychotic behaviors that are often completely out of character, aggressive, violent, and difficult to control. Stripping and running around town naked and paranoid delusions are common results of flakka intoxication. Repeated flakka use can also cause cognitive issues.

Success in Stamping Out Flakka in Florida

Since 2016, flakka abuse in Florida is nearly nonexistent. CNN reports that there were no deaths related to flakka in 2016 in South Florida after more than 60 the previous year. Admissions to drug abuse treatment programs for flakka-related issues are also down from 50 per month in fall 2015 to only six in January 2016.

The Washington Post publishes that in October 2015, there were 306 flakka-involved hospital cases in Broward County; by November, that number had dropped to 187, and there were only 54 cases in December. The last death related to flakka recorded in South Florida was also in December 2015.

The fall of flakka in Florida was impressive. It involved many different collaborative efforts from first responders, law enforcement, and local community-based agencies.

The United Way of Broward County formed the Flakka Action Team in March 2015. The task force included local law enforcement officials, substance abuse treatment providers, and additional professionals who targeted flakka production and worked toward educating the public and community members on the drug’s hazards. Task force members educated jail, school, and law enforcement officials, and ran anti-flakka marches and educational campaigns that centered around the slogan “Lose Your Mind. Lose Your Life.” Posters were plastered all over town with this slogan in an effort to raise awareness.

The task force went after the importation of flakka into Florida by heading to the source: China. On October 1, 2015, the Chinese government banned flakka and 115 other synthetic drugs from being exported to the United States. Up to this point, it was relatively easy to order flakka, or its precursor chemicals from China, and have it shipped through the mail into Florida. The Chinese ban on flakka, the crackdown from law enforcement on flakka trafficking, and the public education campaign all contributed to decreasing flakka abuse in Florida.

Flakka may be mostly gone in Florida, but it is still popping up here and there. In late 2017, Fox News reported flakka cases showing up in Missouri, West Virginia, Oklahoma, Kansas, and Arkansas. There was a warning about a case involving a drug causing excited delirium in July 2018 by the Melbourne Police Department in Brevard County, Florida, that likely involved flakka. Flakka is a highly dangerous drug, and flakka intoxication can often resemble that of other stimulant drugs, such as cocaine or methamphetamine; therefore, it may not always be apparent that flakka is involved.

Community and law enforcement measures have made great headway with the flakka crisis in Florida, but it is important to remain vigilant and aware. Often, as one synthetic drug seems to disappear, another one pops up to take its place. Synthetic drugs can be made in illegal laboratories, and frequently with materials that are not classified as illegal. These products can be highly toxic, addictive, and hazardous, so it’s advised to stay away from them altogether.

Further Readings:

References

‘Flakka,’ the New Killer Drug Is Spreading Across the Country. (August 2015). Miami Herald.

Final Order: Temporary Placement of 10 Synthetic Cathinones into Schedule I. (March 2014). Drug Enforcement Administration.

‘Flakka’ (alpha-PVP). (April 2015). National Institute on Drug Abuse.

Broward County Leads the Nation in Flakka Cases, DEA Statistics Show. (August 2015). South Florida Sun Sentinel.

The Surprising Disappearance of Flakka, the Synthetic Drug that Pushed South Florida to the Brink. (April 2016). The Washington Post.

Patterns and Trends of Substance Abuse Within and Across Regions of Florida. (May 2018). Florida Alcohol and Drug Abuse Association.

Is Street Drug Flakka Gone for Good? (April 2016). CNN.

Join an Action Team. (2018). United Way of Broward County.

Flakka, Drug That Makes People Bark and Strip, Wreaks Havoc in Midwest, South. (November 2017). Fox News.

Melbourne Police Warn About Dangers of ‘Excited Delirium’ After Pair of Bizarre Incidents. (July 2018). WFTV 9.