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Flakka: A Cheap Designer Drug At High Risk To Young People

In this edition of our series, Vital Signs, a synthetic drug that’s caused chaos in Florida and has begun to show up in Texas. Flakka is a highly addictive substance sold cheaply over the Internet, and it’s posing a serious risk for the young people who use it. 

Dr. Joann Schulte, a toxicologist with the North Texas Poison Control Center at Parkland Hospital, explains what makes the drug so dangerous.

Highlights from Dr. Schulte’s interview:

What is flakka? Flakka means “skinny little girl” or “skinny young girl” and it is street slang. It’s sometimes called “gravel” as well because the crystals, which are pink or white, look like gravel. Basically, there’s a plant used in West Africa called khat, and they use it in the Horn of Africa, Ethiopia, up into Saudi Arabia as a way to relax or get high. This drug (flakka) is a synthetic derivative of that plant.

Physical effect of flakka: “It’s called excited delirium. The people tend to be really aggressive and restless, and they can end up with kidney and muscle damage, heart problems, all kinds of things. (Sam: And this can last for quite some time?) It can last several weeks.  Think of it as normally you take an action with your arm. That’s helped by a neurotransmitter. And when you stop, the neurotransmitter stops because you’ve stopped the action. These drugs interfere with the inactivation of the neurotransmitter, so it’s like you stay on edge until that wears off.

Where flakka’s sold: China and parts of Asia. You order it on the Internet and what typically happens with this and a lot of the other designer drugs is that they come in from Asia. People order it from the Internet and then they get into the distribution center here.

Who’s buying flakka: Adolescents and young adults. It’s about five dollars a hit. We’re just starting to see this problem in Texas. We’ve had four calls at the Poison Control Center at Parkland this year. 2014, the drug enforcement network and their labs have found it in Texas. It was 3.6 percent of the bath salts we’ll see. I think it’s a matter of making people aware of what they’re ordering and that they don’t know what they’re ordering necessarily, and it can be contaminated with other things. In a way it was like prohibition was in the 1920s. People wanted to drink that booze, but they sure didn’t know what was in it and you could get methanol in it and go blind. So it’s the same thing.

For more information:

North Texas Poison Control Center 

National Institute on Drug Abuse

Potent New Stimulant FlakkaRavages Florida 

Sam Baker is KERA's senior editor and local host for Morning Edition. The native of Beaumont, Texas, also edits and produces radio commentaries and Vital Signs, a series that's part of the station's Breakthroughs initiative. He also was the longtime host of KERA 13’s Emmy Award-winning public affairs program On the Record. He also won an Emmy in 2008 for KERA’s Sharing the Power: A Voter’s Voice Special, and has earned honors from the Associated Press and the Public Radio News Directors Inc.