Here's Why Police Are Panicking Over Flakka

August 18th 2015

Kyle Jaeger

The rise of synthetic drugs in the U.S. has been widely reported, prompting public health officials to issue grave warnings about the dangers of each new substance. Flakka, one of the latest synthetic compounds to make headlines, has received a similar response.

Banned by the Drug Enforcement Administration (D.E.A.) in 2014, flakka has been linked to a growing number of bizarre stories alleging that the substance causes users to strip naked, stab phantoms, flee from police, and attempt to have sex with trees, among other things. But despite its widespread coverage, not much is actually known about the synthetic drug.

From labs primarily located in China to the streets of rural America, the reported proliferation of flakka has followed a common trajectory. A synthetic cathinone, the drug falls in the same category as bath salts (the street name for the amphetamine-like stimulant), and it is thought to affect users in much the same way. Anxiety, agitation, and hallucinations are some of the regularly cited symptoms of flakka abuse, but anecdotal evidence suggests that the drug poses a much wider range of health concerns.

On the streets, one dose of flakka generally costs less than $5. It can be smoked, snorted, injected, or eaten, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, which notes that "the drug has been linked to deaths by suicide as well as heart attack."

Last month, two Illinois police officers responded to calls about a naked man, Stephen Berkeley, tearing apart his home—overturning furniture and screaming incoherently—after he allegedly consumed flakka. Authorities said that the 51-year-old appeared to be in a state of "excited delirium," and though the officers called for medical assistance, Berkeley died of an overdose shortly before they arrived.

Police Chief William Southerd told VICE News what he saw after reviewing body cam footage of the incident.

"This video was like something I've never seen before," he said. "The guy was completely going nuts in the bedroom, banging into walls, flipping things over. He completely tore the room up, and once they got him subdued he died."

Though flakka was reportedly the cause of Berkeley's death, the Franklin County medical examiner cited "overdose by bath salts," demonstrating how misinformation about synthetic drugs continues to confound law enforcement officials—which, in turn, affects public perception about these substances. Many of the horror stories about flakka have come out of Florida, where hundreds of cases have been reported since the drug first emerged in 2014.

According to the Associated Press, flakka caused one man to run naked through a Florida neighborhood, where he attempted to have sex with a tree, and declare that he was Thor, the god of thunder. "It actually starts to rewire the brain chemistry," Don Maines, a drug treatment counselor at the Broward Sheriff's Office in Fort Lauderdale, told the AP.

"They have no control over their thoughts. They can't control their actions. It seems to be universal that they think someone is chasing them. It's just a dangerous, dangerous drug."

For all of these troubling stories, however, drug policy experts say that the public outcry over flakka is not factually grounded. Because federal agencies such as the D.E.A. have imposed sweeping bans on synthetic drugs—including synthetic marijuana and bath salts, which were given Schedule 1 status under the Controlled Substance Act in 2012—it has become increasingly difficult to conduct tests to determine whether or not the substances really are as dangerous as they've been made out to be.

"The public's image is that these are new drugs, and new drugs are scary," Bryce Pardo, a Ph.D. student who studies drug policy at the University of Maryland, told Vox. "I think the public's reaction is driving discourse more than these drugs themselves."

"The greater good might be served by taking a slower approach to it. Granted, this is very politically hard to do when kids are having seizures, people are dying, or people are just generally afraid of these substances," he added.