Pubdate: Sun, 12 Jul 2015
Source: Courier-Journal, The (Louisville, KY)
Copyright: 2015 The Courier-Journal
Author: Kristina Goetz


VANCEBURG, Ky. - In six months, Ashley lost 50 pounds, blew through
$15,000 of a settlement and sold her house for $700.

She lost feeling in her fingertips. Her hands turned raw and scaly,
almost black. She was convinced her old man talked to people through
the vents, that strangers lurked outside and that she was once in a
high-speed chase - sirens blaring - with the law.

She stayed awake for nine straight days, rarely ate and drank even
less. A stench clung to her body. In the shower, she could feel
something seep out of the pores in her face. She never could get clean

After all that, still, she chased it.

"You can't stop," she said. "It's like crack cocaine. But it's

Alpha-PVP, nicknamed "flakka" - an illegal synthetic drug that has
made headlines across southern Florida - has burrowed deep into Lewis
County in the past six months. And some experts say it's likely to

It has sheriff's deputies on high alert because it's unlike any drug
they've ever seen. Users are trading heroin to get it - a substance
that looks like rock salt, reeks of ammonia and sells for $100 to $500
a gram.

On the street, users call it gravel, sometimes magic, because the high
lasts so long. But it also makes them paranoid, violent and can give
users superhuman strength, a troublesome combination for law

"It's kickin' our ass," Lewis County Sheriff Johnny Bivens

And for users like Ashley, it's taking everything.

Alpha-PVP in Appalachia

On a recent June morning, Bivens sat in his uniform behind a desk in
the historic county courthouse in Vanceburg. He and four deputies
patrol 484 square miles of the county.

When he started as a deputy in the mid-1990s, arrests consisted mostly
of pulling over town drunks and finding an occasional bag of dope. He
saw things change in the mid-2000s when parking lots were full of
people lined up at pill mills. He's also seen a blip in heroin.

But just before Christmas last year, 911 dispatch started receiving
calls about people exhibiting bizarre behavior. There were reports of
people naked, some with abscesses, profusely sweating and fidgeting. A
man lay in the middle of the road, petting a dog. Another stood in
boxers armed with a butcher knife and a hammer. He drove 16 penny
nails through a window to keep an imaginary man from getting inside.

"When the deputy was there investigating the man said, 'There he goes
running across my roof!' " Bivens recalled. "And I mean there was no
one there."

Suspects have kicked windows out of cruisers, led deputies on foot
pursuits through the woods and spit in their faces. Sometimes they
call and whisper: "Somebody's trying to kill me."

In Kentucky, possession of synthetic drugs like flakka is only a
misdemeanor no matter how much an officer confiscates - whether it's 2
grams or 2 pounds. So when other law enforcement agencies seemed
uninterested in prosecuting these misdemeanor cases, Bivens said, he
decided to get aggressive about identifying dealers and locking them

"We're kicking their asses now," he said.

But the penalties are so minor that users don't stay in jail for long.
Bivens wants the legislature to stiffen penalties next session. But in
the meantime he's had to get creative.

"We've never charged anyone with organized crime here, but that's what
we're trying to do," he said.

Recently, the sheriff's office has also teamed up with the federal
government - the Drug Enforcement Administration; the Bureau of
Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives; and Homeland Security - to
track the drug going in and out of Lewis County.

But before he could do that, his office had to understand what flakka
is and where it's coming from.

In 2014, the DEA placed the drug on the U.S. list of illegal
controlled substances. Unlike other drugs, it doesn't flow into the
United States through drug cartels. Anyone can order it off the
Internet from China or India and have it shipped by UPS.

Special Agent Joseph Moses of the DEA said overseas manufacturers are
getting around customs and border patrol agents by labeling the drug
as research chemicals, plant fertilizer, insect repellants, industrial
solvents and even shampoo.

"It's the new frontier," Moses said. "You can get it with a
well-trained chemist and the click of a button."

During two recent busts in Lewis County, deputies found pounds of
flakka, including one stash worth more than $200,000. Bivens thought
the arrest of the alleged flakka kingpin in April would cut the head
off the snake, so to speak.

"He controlled the drug in this area," Bivens said. "Everybody you
talk to said he carried a gun. You bought the drug from him. You had
sex for the drug with him."

But once he went to jail, others simply picked up where he left

Ashley, an addict

In the sheriff's small office, 25-year-old Ashley sat in a
straight-back chair in a loose-fitting orange jumpsuit stamped "Lewis
County Detention Center." Her hands trembled in handcuffs as tears
dripped off her nose.

She asked that her last name not be used. There are plenty of stories
in the county of dealers retaliating in one way or another. They've
been known to lace drugs with rat poison and Drano. Bivens said those
concerns are real.

Ashley had been clean for almost two years when she tried flakka, she
said, first shooting it and then smoking it. She was trying to get
high without failing a drug test, one reason many addicts try the
drug. She didn't like it at first. It tasted bad. But she got used to
it, and before she knew it, she was using a gram a day.

"And that's just a day," she said. "I'd stay up for days chasing

Ashley was set to graduate from a drug court program but absconded, so
a judge issued a warrant for her arrest, Bivens said. Deputies got a
tip about where she was and found her hiding in a closet. Back to jail
she went.

Kentucky synthetic numbers still low

Van Ingram, executive director of the Kentucky Office of Drug Control
Policy, said synthetic drugs were only 2 percent of all submissions to
the Kentucky State Police laboratory in 2014, and there hasn't been an
uptick in 2015.

"You take one guy that's popular in the drug culture in that
community, and he gets on the Internet and orders something ... and
all of a sudden you can start a wave in that community, especially
these smaller, close-knit communities," Ingram said. "And I think
that's what's happened in Lewis County."

Bivens isn't the only lawman who's seen a rise in synthetic drugs,
though. Madisonville Police Chief Wade Williams has seen flakka. But
he sees more synthetic cannabinoids, also known as "synthetic
marijuana." His investigators have found hay sacks full of it, he
said. In one case, police found a man stabbing a mattress in his yard.
He was trying to kill an imaginary person. Others have gone to the
emergency room because they thought they were on fire, he said.

The department has seen an increase in use of force incidents, too, he
said, because users fight officers when they're arrested.

"We're throwing all of our resources on it now and trying to get after
it," Williams said. "We're hoping to keep it from spreading, but it's
bound at some point to take off to the rest of the state. =C2=85 Once the
get that distribution ring set up, overnight it could take over the
whole state. And that's our fear."

Tracking flakka

Jim Hall, a drug epidemiologist at the Center for Applied Research on
Substance Use and Health Disparity at Nova Southeastern University in
Florida, has been tracking drug use for decades. The name flakka, he
said, is a colloquial Spanish term referring to an elegant, slender,
beautiful woman who charms all she meets. But it does anything but
charm, he explained.

The euphoria it causes lasts longer than crack cocaine, and it has a
more intense stimulant effect than methamphetamine. But it also causes
a racing heart rate, aggression and scary delusions, he said.

"Users report that it blocks even the ability to think and many state
that they are literally afraid of the drug," Hall said. "Yet its
powerful addictive qualities cause them to use it again. We have
treatment programs reporting folks who don't even regain their ability
to think clearly for up to 30 days. And some programs report even
months longer for cognitive problems. It's a pretty vicious poison."

But even more dangerous is a syndrome flakka triggers called excited
delirium, which causes the body's temperature to reach 105 degrees
Fahrenheit or more. Users say their bodies feel like they're on fire.

"They will frequently tear off their clothes and run wild, believing
they are being chased by people or even imaginary wild animals seeking
to kill them," Hall said. "This is the fight or flight reaction that
also creates superhuman-like adrenaline-fueled strength oftentimes
taking up to seven law enforcement officers to restrain them. And once
restrained, they require immediate medical attention or they can die.

"Literally it's a meltdown of the brain."

Hall said last year there were more than 2,700 seizures of flakka
across the country. He has heard of cases in Ohio, Illinois and Texas.

"I'm afraid that this is really only the beginning," he

Hope and jail time

Back in the sheriff's office, Ashley fiddled with her handcuffs as she
stared at the floor. She worried about her judgment the following day.
She hoped somehow Circuit Judge Robert Conley would reinstate her to
drug court despite the relapse. She fretted over being so far away
from her son. She knew she was close to losing him to child services.

"I hate that stuff," she said. "I hate it. It's ruined my life. I lost
everything. I want my life to change. I don't want to get out once I
get through this and end up back in here."

But Conley voided her supervised diversion and set her sentencing date
for July 15. There would be no more second chances. She will likely
have to serve the remainder of her original five-year sentence for

As Ashley was led back to her cell, Bivens headed to his office.
Dispatch had already received another call about a man whose neighbor
was acting erratically and had wandered twice onto his property. The
man claimed he'd seen someone running across their front yard.

But no one was there.

Reporter Kristina Goetz can be reached at (502) 582-4642. Follow her

*Alpha-PVP, nicknamed "flakka," is a powerful new synthetic drug that
was placed on the U.S. list of illegal controlled substances in 2014.

*The drug looks like rock salt and smells like ammonia. In Eastern
Kentucky, the drug is being sold for between $100 and $500 per gram.

*Flakka is manufactured in countries like China and India and can be
ordered on the Internet.

*The high from the drug, which has been described by users as
euphoric, lasts for hours. But it can also cause rapid heart rate,
extreme paranoia, hallucinations, and scary delusions.

*The drug can trigger a syndrome called excited delirium, which can
cause the body's temperature to rise above 105 degrees Fahrenheit.
During this syndrome, the body's fight or flight response can give
users an adrenaline-fueled superhuman-like strength, which can cause
severe damage to the brain and muscle tissue.
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