Within the past five years, Florida has become the focal point of a synthetic drug abuse crisis. New and unusual drugs such as flakka appeared seemingly out of nowhere, drawing thousands of people into potentially fatal addictions.
Synthetic drugs, a broad category of narcotics that includes MDMA (Molly), flakka and bath salts, are a serious challenge to public health workers and law enforcement. As in the case of flakka, synthetic drug crises can originate overnight, devastate entire towns, and vanish just as quickly as they pop up.
Most synthetics are produced in labs and factories in China, Southeast Asia, and Mexico. Some new synthetic drug recipes are created by tweaking existing narcotics or from mistakes in existing formulas. Unscrupulous manufacturers in these overseas facilities send the drugs to market, advertising them as recreational.
Because Florida’s dense and diverse population includes residents from drug-trafficking organizations in Latin America and the Caribbean, criminals can easily blend into the community. Large parts of the state remain rural, making it ideal for marijuana grow houses and clandestine meth labs.
Increasingly, synthetic drugs make it into the United States through an even simpler method than container shipping: the U.S. mail. Dealers purchase designer drugs through illicit, dark-web sites and shipped from locales such as China to Florida via regular mail.
Transportation costs make up most of the street price of illicit drugs in the United States. Synthetics provide a unique allure to dealers, because they’re so easy to buy and ship.
Dark Web and Mail Distribution
Synthetic drugs are manufactured overseas and frequently sent through the mail to the United States. They go undetected by law enforcement because police, having never heard of these new drugs, don’t know to look for them.
Even well-known synthetic drugs, such as MDMA, are hard to find in transit. MDMA is odorless and therefore elusive to drug-sniffing dogs, and it can be shipped in the form of pills that look like any other legal medication.
Transportation costs for cocaine, methamphetamine, or heroin are extremely high. Traffickers must bribe officials, disguise shipments, hire mules, and ship more product than needed to account for the possibility of seizure.
Synthetics carry none of those risks or costs. As a result, they are incredibly lucrative for dealers. Dealers can mark up synthetic drugs several hundred times above cost. Synthetics are often unknown to law enforcement, and the mail is less scrutinized than borders, ports, and airports. Mail order synthetics dealers have a very low risk of prosecution.
South Florida is uniquely susceptible to new drug waves. South Beach’s and Miami’s club scenes have always driven high demand for drugs such as meth, cocaine, marijuana, and hallucinogens. Meth, cocaine, and other stimulants are especially popular because they help partiers stay up all night.
Still, clubgoers aren’t necessarily choosy about their purchases. New, untested drugs can become popular as clubgoers chase fads. Prominent scene figures like club owners or DJs can drive demand for new narcotics.
Dealers have no incentive to be honest about the product they’re selling. A common trick is to sell bath salts as MDMA or ecstasy, which are much more difficult to come by.
Dealers who misrepresent what they’re selling put users in danger. Heroin is often mixed with fentanyl, which can result in fatal overdoses. Cheap MDMA or bath salts are frequently replaced with or laced with methamphetamine, which is extremely addictive.
Bath salts is a catch-all term for a variety of drugs. It’s so broad a term that it’s essentially meaningless. On one hand, some “bath salts” are similar to MDMA: they can be habit-forming but don’t hook a large number of users. MDMA is risky mostly because of purity and overdose concerns.
Bath salts could, on the other hand, be just as dangerous and addictive as methamphetamine. One variety of bath salts, flakka, absolutely is. In 2014, it made its way out of the clubs and trapped thousands of South Floridians in addiction.
The Flakka Crisis
A powerful bath salt, alpha-PVP, swept across Florida in 2014 and 2015. The drug is broadly known as flakka. Over the course of those two years, thousands of people began to abuse flakka.
The drug originated in China. Dealers bought it on the internet and had it shipped to South Florida. Chinese authorities ignored the problem because flakka’s victims were in the United States.
Because they can bring in new customers or increase business from existing users, dealers in Florida and elsewhere are eager to sell new drugs, such as flakka.
Floridian drug dealers began buying flakka in 2014, through websites like Silk Road, a notorious dark-web platform. The site, which the FBI shut down in 2013, allowed users to purchase dubious goods, including heroin and meth. The low risk associated with the transportation of the drug made flakka easy to sell at a low cost. Some dealers sold hits for just $5.00.
Alpha-PVP produces a strong stimulant effect and has extreme side effects. The drug makes users break out in a fever, which can escalate to fatal hyperthermia. Flakka users also reported hallucinations and intense feelings of rage or aggression.
Flakka proved to be much more dangerous than most new synthetics. In Broward County, the epicenter of flakka abuse, county officials blamed the drug for 63 deaths in 2015. The county was in a state of crisis and had to assemble a special flakka task force.
But, just as quickly as the drug appeared, it vanished. In October 2015, Broward county hospitals reported 306 flakka-related cases. By December, they saw 54.
The drug disappeared for a simple reason: it’s no longer in production. Chinese officials, under pressure from U.S. diplomats, shut down production of flakka in November 2015. Floridian dealers sold out the rest of their stock and closed up shop.
Many prolific flakka dealers are now on trial. Unfortunately, many of the drug’s users have a long road to recovery ahead of them.
Addiction to Synthetics Is Difficult to Treat
Medical professionals had never encountered flakka before. It’s hard to know how best to help patients who have developed dependencies on synthetics. The tried-and-true tactics for older, better-known drugs might not work.
A common treatment method is to wean users off the substances they abuse. People suffering from heroin addiction, for example, will often transition to ingesting smaller doses of methadone under medical supervision. Those alternatives might not work for brand new drugs like flakka.
After all, synthetic drugs are made of unpredictable compounds and from volatile sources. They can’t be managed with the same certainty as drugs such as heroin or cocaine, which are well understood, have consistent chemical compositions and have been manufactured the same way for over a century.
Flakka, in particular, has caused problems for treatment professionals. Many flakka users suffer from mental disabilities brought on by the drug.
According to the Washington Post, “Chronic users struggled with concentration, one of several lingering side effects. Even filling out paperwork was a challenge. They suffered from paranoia and insomnia. Some were light sensitive, so therapy sessions took place in the dark.”
Flakka may be gone, along with so many other synthetics. But for Floridians seeking recovery, the hard part is just beginning.