Maybe Flakka Should Just Be Legalized

Maybe Flakka Should Just Be Legalized
Courtesy of Jim Hall/Center for Applied Research on Substance Use and Health Disparities at Nova Southeastern University

Jim Hall is an epidemiologist at Nova Southeastern University and Broward County’s most prominent expert on synthetic drugs. He says flakka, the drug that has ravaged Broward County in the past year, is changing. Typically, flakka was made from a chemical called a-PVP, which was mostly shipped over from China. But after the Chinese and U.S. governments banned a-PVP, the rogue chemists who make the drug have substituted its components to flaunt the law. In some of the most recent police crime-lab reports Hall has seen, “flakka” has sometimes been made up of a new chemical, called TH-PVP.

Such is the problem with policing “synthetic” drugs, like flakka, fake marijuana — which can kill people or cause permanent brain damage — and bath salts: At first, they’re legal, unregulated, and can be sold at gas stations or truck stops. But once a community bans one chemical, like the a-PVP in flakka, dealers concoct new, similar drugs in basement labs, start pumping those out onto the streets, and the whole process begins again. Florida's attorney general, Pam Bondi, has banned more than 100 synthetic drugs during her time in office. President Obama signed federal legislation that outlawed numerous synthetics — and their analogs (very similar compounds) — by banning them through the Controlled Substances Act. But police continually see new ones crop up in what officials have described as a constant cat-and-mouse game. 

Broward County is, reportedly, the worst area in the country for flakka arrests: The Broward Sheriff’s Office told New Times last month it processed 1,415 flakka cases last year, up from just 190 in 2014. A reported 60 people have died due to flakka use. Those who survive are often found writhing and moaning in the middle of city streets.

To combat this, a Broward grand jury on December 30 recommended that the state institute a sweeping ban on synthetic drugs. Days later, Bondi introduced the Florida Designer Drug Enforcement Act, which, if enacted, would ban sweeping categories of drugs, like “synthetic cannabinoids,” rather than individual chemical compounds.

Hall says the bill is something he’s been pushing for in the past three or four years. “We’re trying to get ahead of the vicious cycle,” he says. “The drug appears, causes problems, we decide we need to ban it, and then it takes six months to a year to make that happen. With this, we can ban substances by the category of what we now refer to as ‘novel psychoactive substances.’”

Synthetic drugs are a massive problem around world, especially in poor European countries like Poland. States, counties, and entire countries have begun to develop ways of policing synthetics. As Florida considers its own synthetic drug ban, here are the three most interesting approaches used elsewhere around the world.

The Ireland approach: Ban all “psychoactive substances”

In 2010, the entire country of Ireland banned all “psychoactive substances” not explicitly controlled under existing law. That meant, in essence, that anyone caught selling any drug unknown to the government would be issued a “prohibition notice” and told to stop selling said drug, lest they be jailed for a maximum of five years. The same year, Poland instituted a similar ban.

The results, however, have been far from stellar. According to the New York Times, synthetic drug sales dipped in Poland for the next two years — until, that is, manufacturers just began importing the drugs straight from the internet. In 2010, there were about 500 synthetic drug poisonings in Poland, the Times reported. In 2013, there were more than 5,000.

Additionally, medical researchers have said that blanket bans like this make researching new drugs a nightmare, as new treatments using synthetic chemicals become next to impossible to test under such restrictions. Other, nonmedical industries felt the ban’s effects too.

“We can’t put the whole cement industry on hold because some of its intermediate products are used to make drugs,” Igor Radziewicz-Winnicki, Poland’s former deputy health minister, told the paper.

After intense public outcry, a similar bill in Great Britain was squashed last year.

Hall said he’s definitely concerned about the same roadblocks becoming an issue in Florida. “Hopefully that’s taken into consideration in the final bill they draw up,” he said.

The Washington, D.C., method: Ban anything that looks like a synthetic drug

When sold over the counter, synthetic drugs tend to look the same. They come in pouches, with brightly colored designs plastered all over the front. Some occasionally steal the likenesses of cartoon characters. Most are labeled similarly too in that they are often passed off as incredibly expensive versions of common household items, like a $50 bottle of “glass cleaner.”

In 2014, Washington, D.C.’s Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs said it would begin revoking business licenses to any store found selling drugs that look like they’re synthetics.

The rule change seems to have had little effect on the amount of designer drugs flooding D.C. streets: Last year, the Washington Post reported that 439 people overdosed on synthetic drugs in June 2015 alone, up from a previous average of just 30 overdoses a month.

The regulations apparently weren’t tough enough: In July of last year, the city imposed harsher penalties on stores suspected of selling synthetic drugs, including shutting suspect stores down for 96 hours and fining guilty store owners $10,000.

New Zealand’s last-ditch option: Legalize them!

The most radical option, then, would be to simply legalize the drugs entirely. In 2013, New Zealand, facing a designer drug crisis of its own, did just that: The Psychoactive Substances Act of 2013 legalized 40 drugs that passed a stringent set of safety requirements. (The vast majority of drugs tested did not pass the test.) The stores selling the drugs too were highly regulated, and cut from at least 4,000 down to just 170.

Professor Paul Glue, chair of psychiatry at New Zealand’s Otago University, told Radio New Zealand News in 2015 that the law actually seemed to have worked, but not because the substances remained legally available. Cutting the number of vendors seemed to have the biggest effect.

"In the middle of 2013, the Psychoactive Substances Bill came along, and that approximately halved the number of products that were available for sale, but more importantly it reduced the number of places where synthetic cannabis could be sold from," he told the radio station. After the act was passed, the country saw a “50 percent reduction” in emergency-room visits related to synthetic drugs.

After a year of intense media scrutiny, the law was further tightened in 2014, and all drugs were removed from stores.

Hall said the country’s ability to keep drugs out of stores was a commendable goal for Florida to aspire to. The law “turned out to be a very effective law in removing drugs from store shelves,” he said. “These were mostly legitimate merchants, not street drug dealers, who didn’t want the hassle of maybe losing their alcohol licenses. If a person has legal business, they’re more likely to say it’s not worth the hassle.”


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