What Are the Dangers of Flakka?
Consumption of a newly banned drug known as flakka or gravel can lead to dire consequences that include heart attacks, kidney damage, suicidal behavior and a deranged state known as excited delirium.
In 2014 and early 2015, researchers, public health officials and drug enforcement agencies identified a new and dangerous drug of abuse, known formally by the name alpha- pyrrolidinopentiophenone (alpha-PVP) and commonly referred to by street names that include flakka, flocka and gravel.
This drug belongs to a group of chemicals called synthetic cathinones, better known as “bath salts.” Any person who consumes flakka even once can develop a range of severe and potentially fatal changes in normal mental or physical health.
About Bath Salts
“Bath salts” get their name because the original distributors of these drugs frequently tried to mask their illicit/illegal nature by labeling them as harmless household products, including such things as Epsom salts (true bath salts), screen cleaner, insect repellant, stain remover or plant food. Other commercial names for these drugs include Vanilla Sky and Ivory Wave.
In terms of their mind-altering qualities, bath salts produce effects that partially mimic those of drugs classified as hallucinogens, as well the effects of drugs classified as stimulants. Any given bath salt product may contain specific types of synthetic cathinones such as methylone, mephedrone, butylone or MDPV (3,4-methylenedioxypyrovalerone). All of these chemicals are based on the active ingredients of a naturally occurring stimulant plant called khat, which grows on the Arabian Peninsula and the Horn of Africa.
When they first appeared in the U.S., bath salts were legal substances. However, as reports of the dangers associated with their use accumulated, the federal government took steps to ban their possession and consumption. Specific problems associated with even single episodes of bath salt consumption include dangerous changes in normal cardiovascular (heart and blood vessel) function, a potentially lethal breakdown of healthy muscle tissue known as rhabdomyolysis, panic attacks, severe dehydration and the onset of excited delirium.
Symptoms of this delirious state include spikes in normal body temperature, excessive activation of the body’s built-in “fight-or-flight” response, hallucinations and highly irrational thought patterns known as delusions. Issues found in people during episodes of excited delirium include aggressive or violent behavior toward others and self-directed violent behavior. Up to 10 percent of all people affected by the condition will die, and most fatalities occur before a delirious person reaches a hospital.
Alpha-PVP bears a strong chemical resemblance to all other substances classified as synthetic cathinones, the National Institute on Drug Abuse notes. It typically appears in crystal form and has a pink or white color, as well as a distinctive odor.
Methods of flakka consumption include vaporization through burning, oral ingestion, nasal inhalation and injection. As with other forms of synthetic cathinone, dangers associated with the drug include heart attacks, excited delirium (with its potential for self-directed or outwardly directed violence) and a spike in body temperature that leads to rhabdomyolysis and triggers potentially severe changes in normal kidney function. Generally speaking, inhalation of flakka vapor introduces the drug into the bloodstream and brain more rapidly than other methods of consumption, and therefore produces the greatest risk for severely negative or fatal outcomes.
The Current Flakka Situation
Most reports about flakka-related health problems are currently coming from Florida. However, reports from other areas of the country have also reached public health officials and drug enforcement authorities. Some media outlets report that alpha-PVP is not currently illegal under federal statute. However, such claims do not accurately reflect reality.
In response to the public health threat posed by consumption of the drug, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) issued a temporary ban on the sale or possession of alpha-PVP in early 2014. The drug now provisionally belongs to a group of highly controlled substances known as schedule I substances under the terms of a federal law called the Controlled Substances Act.
At the same time that it banned flakka, the DEA added nine other relatively new synthetic cathinones to the schedule I category including butylone, naphyrone and pentylone. (The common bath salt ingredients MDPV, mephedrone and methylone were banned under federal law in 2011 and 2012.) The ban on flakka will last at least through the end of this year and will likely remain in effect well past that point.
By Suzanne Kane
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