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The new drug flakka, which comes in the form of pink or white crystals, has grabbed media headlines over the last few months because of the drug’s side effects, which causes users to act in dangerous, even violent, behaviors. But what is flakka and why should we be so worried about it?
Flakka can be snorted, eaten, injected, or vaporized. It is a cousin of “bath salts,” which are an emerging family of drugs containing one or more synthetic chemicals related to cathinone, an amphetamine-like stimulant found naturally in the khat plant. But flakka is considered more addictive. It is also more dangerous than cocaine, and similar to, but cheaper than methamphetamine. Flakka, which gets its name from the Spanish slang for skinny woman, “la flaca,” also goes by the street name gravel.
Flakka’s side effects are concerning. There’s potential for permanent brain and psychological damage, as well as damage to the kidneys. The biggest danger with flakka is its potency. Just 0.003 ounces (0.1 grams) is a typical dose, making it incredibly easy to overdose. Overdosing can lead to symptoms of heart-related problems, violent behavior, spikes in body temperature and paranoia. It can also create feelings of incredible strength; some users even refer to feeling like the Incredible Hulk, which can put the individual into dangerous situations, for example:
Where Does Flakka Come from and Where is it Being Consumed?
The majority of flakka comes from pharmaceutical companies in China. It can be purchased over the Internet and shipped overseas. It is sold by dealers or can be purchased in some gas stations. Because flakka is cheap to buy, costing only about $3-$5 per dose, dealers are targeting the homeless, as well as low-income individuals.
Flakka is hitting Southern Florida especially hard, predominately in Broward County. This is the same region that was impacted by bath salts a few years ago. In the entire year of 2014, Broward County identified only 200 cases of flakka in samples sent to their crime lab, but over 300 in just the first three months of 2015. There have also been reports of the drug in Alabama, Mississippi, Texas, Ohio and New Jersey.
The Rise of Synthetic Drugs
Synthetic drugs like flakka are not likely to go away. This is because once a compound in a synthetic drug is banned and becomes illegal, those manufacturing the substance alter the illegal compound slightly so that it no longer falls under the category of a banned substance. In this case, compounds in bath salts are now illegal in the U.S., but the drug was tweaked slightly by manufacturers in China to create flakka. This means manufacturers have no limit when it comes to developing new forms of synthetic drugs. They just continue to chemically alter existing popular drugs. As the new formulation of the drugs gain popularity, those who choose to use them can never be certain about what is going into their body and the reactions it could cause.
While the influx of flakka is giving the media a lot to talk about, and the stories may seem unreal, flakka has become a serious problem that puts these individuals and those around them in serious physical and psychological danger.
*This blog was corrected on 9/1/2015 to note that “la flaca" is slang for skinny woman.
Kate Federici is a Research Associate at CASAColumbia