Back in early February, a Lake Worth man stripped naked, climbed up on top of his apartment building with a handgun, and began to threaten to shoot himself and others. After hours of negotiating with the man, authorities say he admitted that he was high on flakka. Weeks later, a Brevard County man was found having sex with a tree. When officers confronted him, he told them he was God, then told them he was Thor. The officers tasered him, but he only managed to pull the prongs off his body with his hands before punching one of the officers. He too was reportedly high on flakka. In April, another man, high on flakka, was arrested for running naked in the streets.
Flakka has been all over the headlines. The crazier stories, like the ones described above, have been big internet hits because flakka has both been dubbed as a drug that makes people nuts and because of its ties with South Florida. While some sites have tried to explain flakka, others have been more grounded in reporting about it.
But there are still a lot we don't know about the drug, and even the sites that have explained it have also left more questions than answers.
Locally, it's a drug that is slowly becoming an epidemic, particularly in Broward County.
New Times spoke to Jim Hall, an epidemiologist at the Center for Applied Research on Substance Use and Health Disparities at Nova, as well as to Broward Sheriff's Office to help us fill in some of the blanks on the synthetic drug that's been dominating headlines.
What exactly is Flakka?
Flakka is a synthetic stimulant made from a-PVP (or, methylenedioxypyrovalerone). It's basically a hodgepodge mix of chemicals, like sort of a cross between crack cocaine and meth. It's a synthetic cathinone, much like bath salts. That means it's made from one or more synthetic chemicals related to cathinone, an amphetamine-like stimulant.
It's like bath salts but more addictive. And like meth but much cheaper.
Where is it coming from?
According to Hall, flakka is coming to the U.S. from China, where it's manufactured in laboratories there. Flakka is then sold over the internet and shipped via worldwide express delivery services. Once it's here, flakka is sold like any other illegal drug. Dealers hire others to sell baggies on the street.
How is it taken?
Flakka is often vaped with an e-cigarrete device. But it can also be snorted and even eaten.
Can it be made locally?
Because it comes from China, for the moment, no local ingredients exist. So you won't find anyone making flakka out of their garage or in a Winnebego any time soon.
Does it really make you crazy?
Like any illicit drug, flakka gets a user really high. The drug produces feelings of euphoria and stimulation. A small does gives off mild hallucinogenic effects.
But, like anything highly addictive, doses eventually need to be increased. And too much flakka is when things get even more dangerous.
While it's high comedy to read about a guy fucking a tree and calling himself Thor, the fact is, high doses of flakka is horrible news for the user and for anyone around that person. It triggers severe agitation in the user, making him ultra-aggressive. This leads to psychosis, with delusions and hallucinations, extreme paranoia, and excited delirium syndrome. This is why some users run around convinced they're being chased — such as the case of the man running in the streets naked. They become violent, and their adrenaline kicks into overdrive to the point where they gain almost superhuman strength. This is how a suspect can easily remove Taser prongs from his body, and often suspects can be taken down only by four or five police officers.
Once a user is finally subdued, he needs immediate medical attention. Flakka produces heart problems, hyperthermia, and kidney failure.
"In Broward County, local hospitals are seeing an estimated total of 20 flakka overdose cases a day," Hall says. One victim described the drug as “'five dollar insanity.”
Why is it so popular all of a sudden?
Two reasons: It's cheap, and it's addictive.
Flakka is extremely low-priced, and a dealer can make a killing. A little batch can go a long way, and because it's so addictive and cheap, customers keep coming back for more.
A kilogram is worth $1,500 and can produce as many as 10,000 individual doses. Dealers then sell 1/10th of a gram for just $4 or $5 on the street. And because it's cheap, the target customers are low-income neighborhoods.
It's cheap, easy to get, and reportedly induces behavior in smokers similar to that of meth.
"Low price is a key factor, and it's very potent," Hall says. "People do enjoy the stimulant, euphoric effect at a relevant low dose."
Is it legal in Florida?
It is not. While some reports have been mixed on this issue, the fact is that flakka was banned in Florida in March 2014.
Is flakka strictly a Florida drug?
The headlines would lead you to believe so. And while it's becoming an epidemic locally, flakka is not only a national problem but a global one as well. Synthetic drugs, most of which were banned in 2006, start off in New Zealand, Hall says. From there, they spread to Eastern and Western Europe, then to the U.S.
While the drug has recently been identified by the street name flakka (a variant of the Spanish translation and misspelling for "skinny girl"), nationally it was first known as gravel. According to Hall, there were more than 2,700 crime lab cases of gravel/flakka nationally in 2014.
Florida has been in the spotlight because flakka use has spiked here. And because news sites love to peg crazy stories to our state. Florida Man stories are popular (New Times writes Florida Man stories all the time), and so the combination has been irresistible to these sites as well as to readers.
According to the National Forensic Laboratory Information System, Florida had 672 recorded cases of flakka in 2014, compared to the 2,720 nationally. And 576 of those were in South Florida.
But is flakka really on the rise in South Florida?
It would appear so.
"In 2014, we had one case of flakka in January, none in February, then we had 19 in March," BSO spokesperson Keyla Concepcion tells New Times. "There was a steady increase which peaked at 84 in September and then again began to decline toward the end of the year."
From there, flakka began to steadily trend upward.
In 2014, BSO analyzed 191 Alpha-PVP cases, compared to 275 in the first three months of this year alone.
"That represents a 45 percent increase when you compare all of 2014 to just the first three months of 2015," Concepcion says.