vials of alpha-PVP, known as flakka, a synthetic drug blamed for 18 recent
deaths in Broward County, Fla. Credit Broward Sheriff's Office, via Associated
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.
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.
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.”
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
“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.
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
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
“It looks just
like meth, heroin or cocaine, depending on the state it’s in on the street,”
Detective Schwartz said.
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.”
A version of
this article appears in print on May 25, 2015, on page A12 of the New York
edition with the headline: Police in Florida Grapple With a Cheap and Dangerous