The Backstory You Really Need To Know About Flakka And Other Synthetic Drugs

The street drug called “flakka” is grabbing headlines as the latest synthetic scourge causing users to spin off in bouts of violence and otherwise insane behavior.  Florida is the setting of multiple flakka episodes, with users allegedly displaying bizarre physical strength and fearlessness. One man in Palm Beach County climbedatop an apartment roof, naked, while waving a gun. Another man in Fort Lauderdale tried kicking down the front door of a police department.

We’ll continue seeing more examples like these, and while there’s no question they are alarming, the truth is they’re relatively small waves radiating from a looming tsunami. The real story isn’t flakka or other uniquely named drugs; it’s the relentless synthetic-drug manufacturing machine that outmaneuvers every law enforcement strategy devised to stop it. And to understand that machine, it’s useful to understand the backstory of its products.

Each new drug bubbling up from the bottomless synthetic cauldron is a chemical variant – a slightly different assembly of molecules that produces similar effects to its predecessors without exactly replicating their composition.  In the case of flakka, the chemical alpha-PVP is a variant of the psychoactive stimulant methylenedioxypyrovalerone (MDPV), a mainstay ingredient in the infamous “bath salts” genre of street synthetics.

As I discussed in a previous article on Forbes, MDPV and its cousin, mephedrone, are synthetic variants of an organic class of stimulants called cathinones, found in a plant called khat that is native to the Middle East and East Africa. Khat leaves have been chewed for centuries to deliver a shade of the same jolt synthetic users are seeking in the grains and powders of today’s designer drugs. (Many Americans became acquainted with khat from the 2013 movie Captain Phillips — it’s the plant the Somali pirates are chewing through much of the action.) Synthetic repackaging of cathinone molecules has been the focus of lab experiments since the 1930s.

All of the drugs mentioned above are Schedule 1-labeled substances in the parlance of the U.S. DEA, defined as “drugs with no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse…the most dangerous drugs of all the drug schedules with potentially severe psychological or physical dependence.” Flakka’s key ingredient is one of the latest to make the list.

The Schedule 1 designation includes many other notorious drugs like heroin, meth, and—notably—MDMA, better known as ecstasy. MDMA is itself a chemical variant of stimulants first developed in post-War Japan to boost productivity.

Over the years, synthetic manufactures have changed their chemical recipes to skirt the latest Schedule 1 definitions while delivering more acute effects. In nearly all cases the drugs are designed to breach the blood-brain barrier (the brain’s protective chemical firewall) and tweak neurochemical functions, such as blocking the reuptake of the “excitatory” neurotransmitters dopamine and norepinephrine – which produces a sort of electrically-charged euphoria.  This effect is a toxic amplification of effects inherent to certain psychotherapeutic drugs. The antidepressant drug bupropion, for example, is also a dopamine and norepinephrine reuptake inhibitor.

That’s an important point to remember about synthetics that’s usually lost in sensationalized news stories: many of the chemical variants are rooted in drugs initially conceived as psychotherapeutics.  Someone in a lab developed the original drugs to solve a problem. What we see in several street synthetics are chemically tweaked Frankenstein derivatives of drugs that credentialed lab researchers, in some cases quite recently, thought were good ideas.

Unlike regulated psychotherapeutic drugs, however, synthetics are often cut with a scary mix of substances—everything from matchstick phosphorous to athlete’s foot powder—and are not sold with dosing instructions. Snorting, smoking or injecting a full package of bath salts or flakka, or any other synthetic, could be enough for a given user to overdose.

And users can’t rely on the drugs’ manufactures for help with knowing what’s inside the package. The drugs aren’t labeled with ingredients lists, just the disclaimer “Not for human consumption” to avoid detection by law enforcement (though it’s hard to believe anyone would take that disclaimer seriously at this point). Knowing exactly what’s in the powder or crystals is impossible without a lab test.

The efficacy of the original drugs (be they organic or synthetic) is debatable, but the profitability of their derivatives is beyond dispute. These drugs deliver a potent effect that people have sought for a very long time, and the longevity of that market provides enormous incentive for manufacturers to keep churning out variants. And the hard truth is that no matter how many new acronyms are added to the Schedule 1 list, we are well behind the learning curve on how to beat the problem.  According to a recent report on the HBO news show Vice, there are at least 160,000 synthetic drug labs operating in China alone, and those are just the ones we know about. That’s 160,000 or more labs pumping synthetic drugs into the market at a pace we’re only starting to fathom.

Right now it’s flakka; soon it’ll be another quirky named synthetic, and then another. This tsunami started gaining momentum long ago and it’s only getting bigger. Knowing that law enforcement will never have the resources to get ahead of the problem, the best policy is to get the word out (especially to teenagers, the prime market for many of the drugs) that synthetics are unregulated hodgepodges of toxic chemicals and straight-up poison to the brain.