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1. The Devil's Drug
scary stories about the synthetic cathinones sold as "bath salts"—sometimes involving people who have not even taken them—are old hat. But this year yellow journalists showed they could get more mileage from the same claims by focusing on one of those cathinones, alpha-PVP, rebranded as flakka. According to a typically over-the-top account posted by NBC News last week, flakka is a "devil's drug" that is "driving Florida insane." Reporters Cynthia McFadden, Aliza Nadi, and Tracy Connor matter-of-factly describe flakka, which they also call "five-dollar insanity," as a "cheap, crazily addictive and terrifying" stimulant that is "wreaking havoc in South Florida." They attribute magical powers to flakka, saying it transforms people into "paranoid zombie[s] with superhuman strength and off-the-charts vital signs."By now
Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel columnist Daniel Vasquez agrees that flakka "turns people into zombies." 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. The Washington Post's Peter Holley, who can always be counted on to regurgitate anti-drug hysteria, confirms that these zombies are not to be trifled with, calling flakka "the new drug that causes users to rip off their clothes and attack with super-human strength."
Tales of superhuman strength have been associated with various drugs over the years, including cocaine in the early 1900s, marijuana in the 1920s and '30s, and PCP (a.k.a. angel dust) in the 1970s and '80s. "The notion that drugs produce superhuman strength is simply not true," says Hart, the Columbia drug expert, who studies the effects of stimulants such as crack cocaine and methamphetamine. "It has never been shown. This is just a continuation of the theme. It should raise red flags for people if they see 'superhuman strength.'"
Like the local reports and earlier national stories from which it draws, the NBC account relies on sources whose work brings them into contact with extreme, nonrepresentative samples of drug users: "An emergency room doctor calls it as 'five-dollar insanity.' A rehab director says it's the 'devil's drug.'… 'I talk to patrol and they say it's every other call some nights…just one after the other, all flakka-related calls,' said Capt. Dana Swisher of the Fort Lauderdale Police Department."
These stories recycle the same handful of anecdotes about flakka users who hurt themselves, attacked others, or ran through the streets naked. They present these cases, which were unusual enough to generate TV reports and newspaper headlines, as typical of flakka users, in some cases transforming a single incident into multiple events. In NBC's report, for instance, a guy who got stuck while climbing the fence around the Fort Lauderdale police station last March becomes "users…impaling themselves on fences."
The news outlets hyping this "epidemic" want you to believe that many, if not most, flakka users behave this way. They also want you to believe the drug is wildly popular. Both of those things cannot be true, since people generally do not like using drugs that send them to jail or the hospital. As Hart observes, "The fact that the vast majority of the people who use these substances don't exhibit that behavior tells you that it's not the drug."
This article originally appeared at Forbes.com.