Embarrassing stories about flakka, the Worst Drug Ever (until the next one), keep accumulating. Two recent articles are especially notable for their completely credulous acceptance of drug warriors' wildest claims.
Last week Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel columnist Daniel Vasquez published a piece so over the top that I had to read it a few times to make sure he was serious. I still have my doubts. Vasquez matter-of-factly describes flakka—a.k.a. alpha-PVP, a synthetic version of cathinone, the active ingredient in the stimulant shrub qat—as "a dangerous designer drug that turns people into zombies" and warns that "the psychological effects could be permanent." Somewhat redundantly, he asserts that flakka "leads to instant schizophrenia."
While people diagnosed with schizophrenia generally are not violent, you have to watch out for people with the flakka-induced variety. Vasquez says flakka "leads users to attack people or commit suicide," so "if you come across someone high on flakka," you should "run for your life." Apparently these are the fast kind of zombies.
In my book Saying Yes: In Defense of Drug Use, I call the belief that psychoactive substances take control of people and force them to do bad things "voodoo pharmacology." Vasquez, who believes in a drug that "turns people into zombies," seems to take the voodoo part literally.
As anti-drug propagandists tend to do, Vasquez presents extreme cases as typical:
Users often strip naked and confront passers-by with superhuman strength. In one case, a flakka user freaked out and impaled himself on a spiked fence around the Fort Lauderdale police department. Another user stripped naked, climbed a roof and threatened to shoot people. And a mother who used it left her child behind on the street.
Vasquez says this sort of thing happens "often." The fact that flakka alarmists keep recycling the same handful of anecdotes suggests otherwise. So does the drug's purported popularity. By and large, people are not interested in using drugs that send them to the hospital or the police station. And while "superhuman strength" might be counted as a benefit, it is sadly impossible, since whatever strength a human exhibits is human by definition. Unless he has been turned into a zombie, I guess.
Most of Vasquez's claims are familiar, but it was news to me that flakka "poisons blood to the point users need to have amputations to survive." Presumably Vasquez was thinking of a recent Sun-Sentinel story in which his colleague Anne Geggis paraphrases a physician who "said he's seen a flakka injection poison the blood to the point it required an arm amputation." That sounds like an infection caused by unsanitary injection practices, which could happen with any substance. It has nothing to do with the uniquely dangerous properties of flakka, which you could snort, swallow, or smoke all day without losing a limb.
Recycling the Sun-Sentinel's hysterical coverage, Washington Post reporter Peter Holley yesterday published a story alerting America to "the new drug that causes users to rip off their clothes and attack with super-human strength." And that's just the headline.
Holley regurgitates Miami DEA agent Kevin Stanfill's claim (originally quoted by WJAX, the CBS station in Jacksonville) that people who use flakka "start going crazy, just like PCP and LSD did in the old days." For anyone familiar with the history of drugs that supposedly cause insanity, those comparisons are bright red flags, but Holley zooms past them.
Likewise with Stanfill's assertion that flakka imparts "superhuman strength." How much? According to the Broward County Human Services Department, restraining a flakka-fortified perp or patient requires "4 to 5 law enforcement officers." But Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel says "sometimes it takes five or six deputies to subdue a person." There are other estimates to consider once you realize that alpha-PVP is one of the synthetic cathinones sold as "bath salts." A few years ago, I calculated, based on various claims of this sort, that it takes 6.4 men to overcome the average person who has consumed a synthetic cathinone, which makes him stronger than a Vulcan or Khan Noonien Singh.
Stanfill, like Vasquez, illustrates how a single bizarre incident attributed to a demonized drug can multiply in the retelling. "We get instances here in Florida where a man bit his baby," he told WJAX. "We get instances here in southern Florida where a man put this baby under water." By my count, that's one baby biter and one baby drowner (assuming it was not the same man in both cases), which may not be enough to conclude that the evil force residing in flakka has a grudge against infants.
Holley generally confines himself to unskeptically passing on such alarming claims, attributing them to others. But the extent of his gullibility and confusion is apparent in this paragraph:
A steady stream of designer drugs has flowed into Florida over the last decade. The names of the synthetic substances may differ—krokodil, meow meow, jenkem—but the effects of the drugs are often the same: paranoia, psychosis, violent behavior, even death.
Only one of the three "designer drugs" that Holley mentions really qualifies for that label, and only one is verifiably present in the United States, let alone flooding Florida. Meow meow is a nickname for mephedrone, another synthetic cathinone sold as "bath salts." Krokodil, by contrast, is a homemade version of the narcotic painkiller desomorphine, which was first synthesized in 1932 and marketed under the brand name Permonid. Krokodil caught on in Russia as a cheap substitute for heroin because it could be made from codeine, which was available there without a prescription. Jenkem—fermented human waste that supposedly generates intoxicating fumes—sounds like it would appeal only to desperately poor people for whom glue sniffing counts as a splurge. Like Elvis and Bigfoot, krokodil and jenkem have been sighted many times in the United States, but none of the reports has been verified. If Holley had done Google searches on "krokodil" and "jenkem" combined with "hoax," he might have chosen different examples.
Leaving aside the question of whether Americans actually are using the intoxicants cited by Holley, the assertion that "the effects of the drugs are often the same" should have given him pause. Is it plausible that a stimulant, a depressant, and whatever the psychoactive ingredient in fermented feces might be all have the same scary effects, let alone that they occur frequently without deterring people from eagerly consuming these substances? It seems far more likely that the claims Holley uncritically accepts reflect perennial fears that are projected onto the pharmacological menace du jour.
Bonus: Vox's German Lopez wonders what sort of coverage alcohol would get if reporters treated it like flakka.