Fred Grimm

Fred Grimm: Influx of Chinese synthetic drugs besiege Flakkadale

Alpha-PVP, also known as flakka, has caused a rash of emergency room visits and overdose deaths.
Alpha-PVP, also known as flakka, has caused a rash of emergency room visits and overdose deaths. Photo from the National Institute on Drug Abuse

Two years ago, flakka meant nothing. A nonsense word, I might have guessed, invented by a hip-hop poet in need of a rhyme.

Lately, the nonsense word has taken on profound connotations.

In Broward County, 33 deaths have been associated with use of the synthetic drug in the last 10 months. So many that State Attorney Mike Satz announced last week that he’s empaneling a grand jury to investigate flakka’s “distribution, usage and effect.”

It has been startling hereabouts, how news stories about certain bizarre behaviors now conjure up an instant diagnosis. A man runs naked through a neighborhood and tries to have sex with a tree. Another discards his clothes and climbs atop a raised railroad drawbridge. A screaming man tries to beat down the door to a police station. In South Florida, by the summer of 2015, you know what has happened. You shake your head and think, “flakka.”

Satz’s office said that Broward emergency rooms treat as many as 20 patients a day suffering from effects of the street drug also known as a-pyrrolidinovalerophenone, or alpha-PVP. That begins to sound like an epidemic.

The illicit stuff comes by mail order from manufacturers in China (where it’s not illegal), capsules of small crystals so cheap with so much bang in its hallucinatory effects that flakka peddlers — at $5 a pill — have a ready customer base among the homeless.

The effect might last hours. Emergency room doctors talk about soaring body temperatures and heat stroke and kidney failure and elevated blood pressure and heart attacks and just plain paranoid craziness.

But the other bothersome fact about flakka has to do with geography. South Florida in general and Broward County in particular have become the unhappy epicenter of the nation’s alpha-PVP outbreak.

The Broward State Attorney’s Office reported that in 2014, “Broward led the nation in the number of crime lab cases for alpha-PVP.” So far, in 2015, the county lab has taken on 100 flakka cases a month. Satz’s office counted 524 flakka-related felonies in Broward through the first seven months of the year. Stories in The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Associated Press, Reuters and CBS News on the nation’s newest, scariest street drug all begin with reporting out of Fort Lauderdale.

Might as well call the place Flakkadale. But what’s also discomfiting is a dismal similarity to the oxycodone epidemic that was once rooted in South Florida. In 2009, the state attorney general’s office reported that 85 percent of oxy pills sold in the U.S. came out of Florida. All 50 of the top 50 oxy prescribers in the U.S. came from Florida and 33 of those came from Broward County, which had more pill mills (117) than McDonald’s restaurants (70).

A grand jury was empaneled in Broward. Enough hell was raised that state laws were tightened. Just last week the JAMA Internal Medicine reported “modest decreases” in the use of opioid painkillers.

Just in time for a new scourge.