There's a new drug in town called flakka.
While many reports are saying this new designer drug is sweeping the state of Florida, the mind-altering substance has also been popping up in a few other states across the country, including Ohio and Texas.
There, it goes by the name "gravel" because it looks like the colorful gravel pebbles you'd use to decorate the bottom of an aquarium.
Use of the drug, which can be snorted, smoked, injected, and swallowed, has been linked with serious — and sometimes deadly — behavioral problems:
- Earlier this week police arrested a man on flakka running naked across an intersection to escape the imaginary people he said were chasing him.
- In February, a man on flakka was caught on camera trying to kick in the glass doors of Florida's Fort Lauderdale police headquarters.
- And last March, a man on flakka reportedly impaled himself on a metal fence.
If these behaviors remind you of the ones that made headlines a few years ago with the appearance of drugs called "bath salts" — it isn't a coincidence. The two drugs are closely related.
What's it made of?
Flakka is made from a compound called alpha-PVP, a chemical cousin of cathinone, the amphetamine-like drug found in bath salts.
Here's the worst part: While the active ingredient in bath salts was officially banned in 2011, its newer relative, alpha-PVP, was not.
That means it is legal in any state without its own ban.
What does it do?
Like cathinone, alpha-PVP is a type of stimulant, colloquially called an “upper.” Uppers are linked with feelings of euphoria, enhanced alertness and wakefulness, and increased movement — all symptoms that are similar to those experienced by people on other drugs like amphetamines or cocaine.
Since flakka is so new, researchers aren't sure exactly how it affects the brain, or how addictive it is.
For now, they can only guess by looking at how its chemical cousins, like cocaine and amphetamines, work. These drugs cause a surge in two chemicals: the feel-good chemical dopamine (responsible for the euphoric sensations) and norepineprhine (which raises heart rate and blood pressure and can make us more alert).
Like cocaine and meth, flakka comes with a comedown, the period when the drug leaves the body and the person is left feeling fatigued or depressed. This sensation often results in users returning to the drug to get rid of the negative comedown feeling, jump-starting a cycle of use that can lead to abuse. Also like cocaine and meth, the drug may alter brain chemistry in a way that makes users require a larger and larger dose to get the same high.
Excessive use has been linked with feelings of extreme anxiety, paranoia, and hallucinations. Like with bath salts, people have also reported dozens of episodes of violent behavior in people on flakka.
At high doses, flakka may also cause the body to reach high temperatures (bath salts have been linked with the same symptom). This excessive temperature can lead to severe physical complications like kidney damage and muscle breakdown.
Flakka is on the rise
Still, flakka use is on the rise.
According to Forbes contributor Robert Glatter, the US Drug Enforcement Administration has seen a nearly 780% increase in the number of reported cases in the last three years. Back in 2010, not a single case of the drug had been reported in the US. Suddenly in 2012 there were 85 cases, and in 2014 there were 670.
Not surprisingly, one of the main reasons for this increase may be the price: flakka can cost as little as $5 a pop according to Dispatch Times, and is easy to buy in bulk.
"The cost is what really alarmed us ... a lot more people can get their hands on it, and that's always a problem," Fort Lauderdale police Sergeant Nick Coffin told Dispatch Times.
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