Pubdate: Mon, 25 May 2015
Source: New York Times (NY)
Copyright: 2015 The New York Times Company
Author: Frances Robles


MIAMI - A hazardous new synthetic drug originating in China is being 
blamed for 18 recent deaths in a single South Florida county, as 
police grapple with an inexpensive narcotic that causes exaggerated 
strength and dangerous paranoid hallucinations.

On Thursday, the Fort Lauderdale police killed a man, reportedly high 
on the man-made street drug, alpha-PVP, known more commonly as 
flakka, who had held a woman hostage with a knife to her throat.

The shooting of Javoris Washington, 29, was the latest in a series of 
volatile episodes that the police in South Florida have faced with 
highly aggressive drug users. Law enforcement agencies have had 
difficulty tamping down a surge in synthetic drugs, which were banned 
after becoming popular in clubs five years ago only to re-emerge 
deadlier than ever under new formulations. As soon as legislation 
catches up with the latest craze, manufacturers design a new drug to 
take its place, federal and local law enforcement agencies say.

In Broward County, which includes Fort Lauderdale and is considered 
ground zero for the new drug, there have been 18 flakka-related 
fatalities since September, the chief medical examiner there said.

"I have never seen such a rash of cases, all associated with the same 
substance," said James N. Hall, an epidemiologist at Nova 
Southeastern University who has studied the Florida drug market for 
decades. "It's probably the worst I have seen since the peak of crack 
cocaine. Rather than a drug, it's really a poison."

Flakka, which got its name from a Spanish colloquial term for a 
pretty, enticing woman, is a synthetic cathinone that mimics the khat 
plant grown in Africa. It is made from 
alpha-pyrrolidinovalerophenone, what Mr. Hall describes as 
"second-generation bath salts," a reference to previous formulations 
of the amphetaminelike stimulant.

Also known as gravel, flakka made a sudden and explosive entrance 
into South Florida's illicit drug market about six months ago, 
particularly in poor neighborhoods, where drug users including 
homeless people were lured by the low price, $5 a dose.

Police departments around the state, and especially those near Fort 
Lauderdale, have been called to a growing number of situations 
involving people high on the drug who were convinced that packs of 
dogs or people were chasing them.

In February, a 50-year-old homeless man tried to kick in the glass 
door at the Fort Lauderdale Police Department because he believed 
people were chasing him. In Melbourne this month, a 17-year-old girl 
ran down the street naked and covered in blood, screaming that she was Satan.

In Broward County, a man ran down a street wearing only sneakers, 
saying a pack of German shepherds was hunting him. Another person 
became impaled on a fence.

"Police departments are always calling us for backup, because they 
try not to apprehend somebody on synthetic drugs by themselves," said 
Mia Ro, a spokeswoman for the Drug Enforcement Administration's Miami division.

At first, the products known as bath salts were available in gas 
stations. When specific chemical substances were banned in Europe and 
the United States, chemists tweaked the formula, and flakka emerged.

Five major synthetic cathinones were banned federally and by most 
states in 2010. Flakka is illegal in the United States, and law 
enforcement authorities are working with officials in China for it to 
be outlawed there as well.

"Our supposition is that the original concept was to design it so it 
would be technically not illegal," Mr. Hall said. "It appears they 
are now looking to also design the molecule to be even more potent 
and more addictive. Addiction is good for sales."

But the law has not stopped its flow, Mr. Hall said.

Broward County's chief medical examiner, Dr. Craig Mallak, said the 
drug manufacturers added a ketone, an oxygen atom that affects more 
receptors in the brain.

The drug works by blocking the reuptake function of transmitting 
neurons, allowing a storm of dopamine and serotonin to flood the 
brain, Dr. Mallak said.

Flakka comes in the form of crystals of different colors that 
dissolve in the mouth, and the drug is also smoked and can be used 
for "vaping" in e-cigarette-like devices. The body temperature of 
users who take too much can rise above 105 degrees, resulting in 
excited delirium. Users can feel so hot that they may strip off their 
clothes. Some have suffered kidney failure and cognitive impairment.

"They do really wild things," Dr. Mallak said. "A lot of them get 
hyperthermia and die of heat stroke. A few attack police officers, 
end up getting shot. They tear their clothes off and go crazy."

Many of the drug's users remain high for three days on a $5 dose the 
size of one-tenth of a packet of sweetener.

The Broward Sheriff's Office said the county lab first detected the 
drug in January 2014. By the end of last year, the lab had 
encountered about 190 cases. From January to mid-April this year, the 
lab had analyzed more than 400 cases.

"The problem we have as law enforcement is that it came on the scene 
so fast," said Detective William Schwartz, a narcotics investigator 
at the Broward Sheriff's Office. "This isn't a drug that's 
proliferating in the clubs. We are seeing it destroy low-income neighborhoods."

Detective Schwartz said a $1,500 kilogram is delivered to dealers by 
major international delivery services, making it "readily available 
to anyone who knows how to use a computer," he said.

The dose is so tiny that the initial investment can yield 10,000 
doses, sold at $3 to $5 each. The small dosage size also makes it 
easy to consume too much, with fatal results.

"It looks just like meth, heroin or cocaine, depending on the state 
it's in on the street," Detective Schwartz said.

But because the normal dose of cocaine or meth is so much higher than 
flakka's dose, one-tenth of a gram, even a little too much puts the 
user in a state of excited delirium, Detective Schwartz said, "and 
there's no way back."
- ---
MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom