Fla. cops grapple with insidious new drug

'Flakka' has been involved in a number of recent incidents in the state

By Julius Whigham II
The Palm Beach Post

PALM BEACH COUNTY, Fla. — Naked and screaming from a Lake Worth rooftop in January, Leroy Strothers was threatening to shoot "everybody like Rambo" as Palm Beach County sheriff's deputies and SWAT members tried to coax him down. Finally, after a few hours, he peacefully gave up. Strothers, 33, who was arrested on weapons-related charges, later said he had been smoking flakka, the sheriff's office said.

Flakka is cheap, potent and has been described as the next generation of synthetic drug. And in recent months, it has been linked to a string of similar incidents involving bizarre, sometimes violent behavior.

Following in the line of synthetic drugs such as bath salts and Ecstasy, flakka is emerging as a popular drug across South Florida, officials say.

"It's very popular and ... it's starting to make its way into Palm Beach County," said Alexa Lee, program coordinator for the Palm Beach County Substance Abuse Awareness Coalition.

What's causing the strange behavior?

Known as "gravel" in other parts of the country, flakka was introduced to South Florida about a year ago, said Jim Hall, an epidemiologist for the Center for Applied Research on Substance Use and Health Disparities at Nova University.

The primary component is a chemical called alpha-PVP, a potent stimulant that can cause bizarre behavior when used in high concentrations.

However, other drug combinations have been sold under the name flakka, including some powder forms containing a combination of cocaine, methamphetamine and heroin, Hall said.

"It's not a reliable brand name where you know exactly what you're getting," he said. "One of the key trends that flakka is going along with, like (ecstasy), is establishing an intriguing brand name that, then anything they have they want to sell, they can with that brand name.

"This is one of the real risks with the drug is the user does not always know what they're getting."

A number of recent South Florida incidents involving the drug have been in the news:
— Police say flakka played a role in an attack last month on an elderly woman in Riviera Beach. Derren Morrison, 27, of Palm Springs was charged with attempted second-degree murder after he allegedly knocked on the door of an 81-year-old woman and then repeatedly attacked her.

Morrison told officers he had consumed sweet liquor that day and was under the influence of flakka, according to police reports. He said he thought someone was going to kill him, according to court documents.

— In late January, Palm Beach County Sheriff's deputies encountered Strothers standing on the roof of a Lake Worth apartment building. He told deputies he felt delusional and was hallucinating, according to a sheriff's office report. Strothers also claimed that someone was trying to kill him.

Such episodes can be common for someone experiencing the effects of flakka, Hall said.

"The adverse effects can be quite serious," he said. "They can produce psychosis and really violent behavior. And then we're seeing more examples of excited delirium. "

— Last month, Broward County authorities reported separate incidents of men trying to get into the Fort Lauderale police station while under flakka's influence. One man had to be rescued when he was impaled by a spike while trying to climb over a fence that surrounded the station, according to published reports.

— And earlier this month, a 34-year-old Broward County man who allegedly smoked flakka was hospitalized for psychiatric evaluation after he ran naked through a busy intersection. Matthew Kenney told Fort Lauderdale police officers he was running from people whom he believed had taken his clothes and wanted to kill him, according to published reports.

More Potent Than Bath Salts And Molly
Detective Lori Colombino, spokeswoman for the West Palm Beach Police Department, said city officers have encountered cases involving synthetic drugs in recent months. However, she added that it would be difficult to specify whether any involved flakka because the drugs have to be analyzed by a crime lab.

According to statistics provided by Hall, South Florida crime labs reported more than 200 cases involving alpha PVP in 2014, compared to just six in 2013 and two in 2012.

Part of flakka's growing appeal, authorities say, is that it can it be acquired cheaply, with a capsule or small bag in powder form selling for $5 to $10.

Treatment centers have reported seeing only a few cases of flakka users seeking help, but some say they expect that will change as users continue to seek newer, more potent drugs.

"We do expect it to rise because it's sort of the new thing," said Beth Sullivan-Jawitz, a psychiatric nurse practitioner at the Recovery Unplugged addiction treatment center in Fort Lauderdale. "This is the next, stronger thing. It's more potent than bath salts and (the synthetic drug known as) Molly."

Robert Park, Executive Director of the Hanley Center addiction treatment center in West Palm Beach, said that much is still being learned about flakka.

"We haven't seen a huge influx of people who use flakka come in for treatment," he said. "We have seen an influx of synthetic drugs in general, used in conjunction with some other type of illicit drugs."

To educate the public about the dangers of newer drugs such as flakka and Kratom, the Substance Abuse Awareness Coalition is planning to launch a new website — dontbeaguineapig.com — Lee said.

"Anything entering the system you've got to be knowing what's in it, whether it's something that's prescribed or not prescribed," she said. "With this particular drug, it's a synthetic drug so therefore the people who are taking it, they never know really what's going into it."

Copyright 2015 The Palm Beach Post

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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