Earlier this week, reports surfaced that Austin Harrouff, a 19-year-old Florida State University student, stabbed a married couple to death in their Jupiter, Florida home, and then gnawed at the male victim's face. The FSU fraternity brother grunted like an animal as police tried to subdue him during the Monday night attack, officials said.
Authorities believe Harrouff was high on flakka, a highly addictive designer drug that causes paranoia and psychosis. Flakka, sometimes known as gravel, is closely related to bath salts, a synthetic cathinone that police linked to the infamous face-eating attack in Miami four years ago. The man-made drug that's manufactured primarily in China entered the states only a few years ago, but didn't soar in popularity until 2013. Florida has seen the brunt of the flakka abuse. The epidemic began to spread to the Midwest last year.
For those unfamiliar with flakka, here's what you should know about the designer drug, its make-up and what it can do to a person.
What is flakka made of?
There's nothing remotely natural about flakka. The pharmaceutical name for the designer drug is a-Pyrrolidinopentiophenone – otherwise known as a-PVP or alpha-PVP – a chemical compound originally synthesized in the 1960s. The Drug Policy Alliance calls it the "second-generation bath salts." Flakka comes as a foul-smelling white or pink crystal that, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, you can snort, eat, inject or even vape. Like bath salts, the substance is packaged in plastic bags or vials and labeled "not for human consumption" or "plant food." You can buy it online or off the street.
How powerful is flakka?
Like bath salts, flakka simulates the effects of cocaine and methamphetamine without the price tag. That's why the designer drug has become so popular among college-age adults – since it's 10 times more powerful than coke. But the exhilaration caused by flakka is actually significantly more potent than one would feel from a naturally derived drug like cocaine, said Dr. Indra Cidambi, addiction medicine expert and founder/medical director of Center for Network Therapy. "The high is pretty high and getting off takes longer," Cidambi said. Several days even.
Why is flakka dangerous?
Flakka is known to spike your body temperature up to 104 degrees, if not higher. An extremely high body temperature can have dire consequences – it can lead to kidney damage or kidney failure, and even death. The synthetic drug can also elevate your blood pressure, which can cause a heart attack, stroke, aneurysm, or heart failure, according to the Mayo Clinic.
How brutal are flakka's side effects?
People who use flakka will at first feel euphoric, highly sociable, stimulated, more focused and have an increased sex drive, said Cidambi. But the anticipated high will wear off quickly, leaving users to up their flakka intake. And the more someone abuses the designer drug, she added, the more they will begin to feel the negative side effects. Flakka users will experience what the National Institute on Drug Abuse calls "excited delirium": a debated condition involving hallucinations, paranoia, increased strength and hyperstimulation. Your heart will race. You will have panic attacks. Your sex drive will plummet. You may become depressed and suicidal. And like Harrouff, you could become extremely psychotic and violent. "It's easy to get there, though," Cidambi said. "As you crash you're going to feel all the withdrawal you want to not feel … unfortunately it's their tolerance that pushes them to the other side." Vaping with flakka will make you feel these effects far quicker than any other method because the drug goes straight in your blood stream. That could easily lead to an overdose, the federal health institute states.
Why the low cost means young people are at risk.
Since flakka's cheap, it's a popular drug among college students, as well as low-income people and the homeless population. The designer drug is typically sold online or in the streets for $3 to $5 a hit, whereas a gram of cocaine in the states can cost anywhere from $62 to $80 on average. Many young adults can't afford to drop that kind of cash, said Cidambi. Flakka also doesn't carry the stigma cocaine does – at least that's what some of Cidambi's college-aged patients told her. Some young addicts believe flakka is just "not as bad as cocaine," she said.
Millennials are also dealing the drug. Last year, police in Florida, where flakka has a stronghold, busted a 22-year-old woman for importing the drug from China, the Broward Palm Beach New Times reported. The year before, a 22-year-old student at Hunter College in New York City was arrested for trafficking more than a pound of alpha-PVP from Shanghai into the U.S., according to the New York Post.
But is it legal?
Not anymore. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration placed a temporary ban on a-PVP and nine of synthetic cathinones in March 2014. The designer drug is still classified by the DEA as a Schedule I Controlled Substance as of May of this year. At least 20 other countries have banned or regulated a-PVP in some way. The Chinese government banned flakka and 115 other synthetic drugs as of October 1st – just weeks before the U.S. Treasury Department sanctioned Bo Peng, one of China's biggest flakka traffickers.
Cidambi says illegality may not matter in the long run. Drug producers will alter the chemical structure of flakka ever so slightly to circumvent the law. It's how MDMA—or Molly—led to bath salts, she said. "You wait for a couple of weeks and then you get something else," said Cidambi. "A cheaper substitute."