For a brief period in the mid-2010s, there was hysteria over a supposedly new designer drug called “flakka”. The drug gave users superhuman strength, frightening hallucinations, as well as psychosis and paranoia. While the panic was somewhat misplaced — opioids killed thousands more people in that period — the essential truth was there: flakka truly is a dangerous drug.
The dramatic effects of flakka and the hysteria surrounding the drug are perhaps why many other drug users did not take to it. Today, drug rehab and treatment centers in Dallas do not report especially high admission rates for flakka and other synthetic cathinone drugs, even after a wave of reports around 2014 and 2015 that it was becoming a “drug of choice” in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.
And almost as quickly as flakka became the hottest topic in the drug scene, it also largely vanished. By 2016, flakka had largely disappeared, largely thanks to the cooperation of the Chinese government in halting production. The drastically lowered cost of pure methamphetamines is also a reason many drug users have moved away from flakka, reducing the demand for that specific drug.
However, other similar synthetic cathinone drugs are still around, particularly in club scenes. As in the mid-2010s, these still pose a real risk to users today.
Flakka, sometimes called gravel, plant food, or bath salts, is one of the names of the chemical alpha-PVP (also α-pyrrolidinovalerophenone, α-PVP, O-2387, β-keto-prolintane, prolintanone, or desmethylpyrovalerone). It is a type of synthetic cathinone, analogous to the organic psychoactive compounds in khat, a plant cultivated in the Middle East and the Horn of Africa.
Contrary to reports of it being a “new” drug, flakka has been around and abused under different names in different forms since it was first synthesized in the 1960s. Up until the 2010s, the consumption of the drug was quite rare, which meant that it did not become widely illegal up until a wave of last-minute legislation in that decade.
Flakka is most widely available in powdered crystalline form. This powder ranges in color from pink to white and has a characteristic foul smell. It could be eaten, snorted, injected, smoked, or vaped for its characteristic hallucinogenic and stimulant effects.
Flakka has power stimulant effects, similar to methamphetamines and cocaine. It tends to deliver a stronger, more concentrated effect than either of those drugs. Some short-term effects include the following:
The effects of flakka are broadly similar to other widely misused stimulant drugs. However, at $5 a dose or less, it is also much cheaper. It is not especially popular, even when readily available. Polydrug users, that is, people who use multiple drugs, will often tend to prefer other stimulant drugs over flakka if they could afford it.
This leads to a situation where most regular flakka users are among the poorest and most vulnerable. Speaking to the Dallas Observer, Stefanie Jones, then nightlife community engagement manager for the Drug Policy Alliance said “In Florida, Ohio, and Tennessee, where it’s already been seen, it’s mostly poor people, it’s really vulnerable communities where you’re seeing people come across this substance and use this substance… I think that’s what’s driving the panic. It’s easily obscured behind a drug rather than us acknowledging that these are people who just have tough lives. They need better access to services and treatment. A drug like this can have a big, negative impact on a community like that.”
While it is now starting to reemerge in other countries, flakka is no longer considered to be a major drug threat anywhere in the United States. However, the lack of mental healthcare infrastructure, and the continued existence of widespread poverty in the United States all mean that it and other similar cheap synthetic drugs can very well make a comeback.
A Florida drug counselor, speaking to the Washington Post at the end of the flakka crisis, quipped “At the height of the flakka craze, you were almost praying for crack cocaine to come back”. The intensity and violence of the effects made life dangerous to users and emergency responders alike. Fortunately, we were lucky that, unlike the opioid and meth crisis, the flakka problem was an incredibly short-lived one.