Bath Salts

Flakka 'Turns People Into Zombies,' Just Like Krokodil and Jenkem

Flakka-fortified humans reportedly are stronger than Vulcans.


CBS News

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.

NEXT: Brickbat: Banned in Colchester

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  1. …as “a dangerous designer drug that turns people into zombies” and warns that “the psychological effects could be permanent.”

    Head shot. That’s what will make that condition unpermanent. It’s like Vasquez never cracked open an episode of The Walking Dead (a show which, although the characters never confirm it, is I’m pretty sure an allegory about zombies).

    I’ve been saying all along that research either by government scientists or corporate bio-engineers is what’s leading to the sudden uptick in zombie attacks. And these drug stories are planted in the news media to cover up for the experiments that probably got away from the scientists. I don’t know if journalists are complicit or just gullible but I do know this: ground zero is going to be somewhere in Florida.

    1. No question about it, research by government scientists is driving huge social change. Nothing in the Universe causes humans to blindly obey unsavory authority figures like filling them with the fear of invisible monsters.

  2. Well we know from trial transcripts (IIRC) that cannabis turns people into bats. Anything is possible.…..a-bat.html

  3. “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.”

    Never let it be said that Sullum doesn’t know his audience. Though it would’ve been nice if he’d thrown in a shot at that bald-headed limey flutist with the Gallic, kissy-face name.

    1. I guess being a furriner would make him a flautist, now that I think of it.

  4. Mmmmm…Jenkem. Just had a nice cupful on my Cheerios.

    1. Some people think it’s gross when I spread it on my toast.

      1. That’s the deep dish of Jenkem, right there. Heretic.

        1. Try it. Try it and you may. Try it and you my, I say.

      2. The Shrubber’s Woodchipper just smiled and gave me a Jenkem sandwich.

        1. In college, after inhaling vegemite, I would enjoy carefree walks in the buff and feats of strength against 5 to 7 armed agents of the state. Good times.

          1. After smoking Vegemite I dropped out of college and hid in my apartment wondering who can it be knocking at my door?

  5. O.T.: U.S. Bans Trans Fat…..ow-for-pie

    When will they treat us like adults? You know this benefits dem. trial lawyers.

    1. Trans-fats give people Jem’Hadar strength when they’re hopped up on ’em. They’re way too dangerous!

  6. restraining a flakka-fortified perp or patient requires “4 to 5 law enforcement officers.”

    BS. If it gives super-human strength those cops would be ingesting it themselves.

    1. I html good

    2. What makes you think they’re not?

      1. They keep their clothes on?

  7. Flakka is responsible for many things, including the irrational choice of Alt-Text used for this article.

    There’s the proof of how dangerous it actually is.

  8. marijuana ? another drug that federal lawmakers, including President Obama, have warned is dangerous ? reportedly caused zero overdose deaths in the past few thousand years.

    That Vox article is actually pretty decent until the end. I can’t tell if the paragraphs about banning alcohol are supposed to be funny or not.

    1. No way. Banning alcohol would cut into Democratic returns come election day.

      1. Psst, …fish have been scrogging in the water. I recommend drinking only beer or wine.

    2. As young students we were forced to sit through hours of films showing how marijuana distorts one’s perception of space and time to such a degree that it’s users are taken on a “trip” through a wild psychedelic amusement park adventure within themselves. Talk about an awesome advertising campaign. By the time we had finished high-school there probably wasn’t a student in the entire state who hadn’t tried many times to replicate the experiences highlighted in the films; disappointment.

  9. OT: Chief of Staff PA’s AG drives seized Benz, tax payers pay for repairs

    Banana Republic. Dropped here because I’ll miss the AM links.

  10. Flakka sounds like something Warhammer orcs would take.

  11. FL AG Pam Bondi is a fanatical facsist drug warrior who needs a good chippin’.

  12. I’m definitely an anti-drug person, personally. Two alcoholic parents, one son with a drug problem (out of three, the other two are fine), a sister who was an alcoholic for many years married to a heroin addicted husband/drug dealer, etc. I can’t help but think though if drugs had been legalized all these years would we now have drugs that get you high and last 3 hours, and that’s it. Or, you get high and then you take an antidote that sobers you up in 20 minutes. Maybe we would have drugs that gave one a creative high, or a sexual high, or a sensual high, and so on.

    I can’t help but think if the free market had been allowed to experiment and take chances we might not now have an addiction problem, or we might have a way better controlled addiction problem with considerably less impact on people’s lives.

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