Flakka use sharply down in Fla. after crisis
Tallies of flakka-related incidents at the by the sheriff’s office have trended downward
By Tonya Alanez
FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. –– Nearly as quickly as flakka burst onto South Florida’s street-drug scene, the designer drug has faded from the local landscape.
Since cresting last summer and fall, flakka-related fatalities, emergency-room cases, arrests and admissions to drug treatment centers have significantly decreased, experts say and data show.
“Nobody can deny we had a crisis on our hands,” said Lt. Ozzy Tianga of the Broward County sheriff’s office. “By no means is it 100 percent gone, but the numbers speak for themselves. We’ve been successful.”
The county medical examiner hasn’t seen a flakka-related death since Dec. 11. There had been 63 since September 2014.
Flakka-related hospital cases, which rose more than 300 a month in June through October, fell to 54 in December.
Admissions of flakka users to the Broward Addiction Recovery Center fell from a high of 50 in July to six in January.
Tallies of flakka-related incidents at the by the sheriff’s office have trended downward since hitting a monthly high of 120 on Oct. 1. That number fell to 14 by Dec. 1.
Broward County in 2014 led the nation in flakka cases, U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration statistics showed. Flakka cases in crime labs in Broward far outpaced all other major urban counties in the nation, according to the DEA.
So how did the dangerous drug decline so remarkably and so quickly?
Experts credit a ban of the drug in the overseas country that was the chief supplier combined with a focused local effort to eradicate it from the streets.
“Our answer was not to arrest our way out of the problem,” Tianga said, “but to educate the community, show compassion to users and make flakka enforcement of dealers priority No. 1.”
Clandestine labs in China manufactured the drug, chemically known as alpha-PVP, and flooded the local street-drug market in an online mail-order business.
The Chinese government on Oct. 1 restricted exportation of alpha-PVP and 115 other chemical substances used to make synthetic drugs that had been found to have no known legitimate uses.
China’s ban was followed in November by a visit to the communist nation by a delegation of Broward County law enforcement officials, including Tianga, to voice their support for the restrictions.
“Undoubtedly, the major factor is the banning of alpha-PVP at its source in China,” said Jim Hall, an epidemiologist at Nova Southeastern University and Broward’s flakka expert. “However, the China ban is just part of the story.”
Equally important in the downturn, said Hall, was the formation nearly 10 months ago of a 40-member Flakka Community Action Team, a joint effort between government agencies, law enforcement, first responders, religious leaders and the United Way of Broward County’s Commission on Substance Abuse.
“The team made major efforts in reducing the demand side of the equation,” Hall said. “The team was effective in prevention, community education and treatment resources.”
The next step is a statewide, broad-stroke ban of three primary categories of designer drugs, as recommended by a Broward grand jury in January.
A measure that would do that passed the state Legislature and is headed to Gov. Rick Scott for his signature. The state Senate unanimously approved it Friday; the House did the same Feb. 24.
In the past, lawmakers have had to tackle problematic designer drugs one chemical compound at a time. That led chemists to tweak compounds as soon as they were outlawed and hit the market with the next derivative.
Backed by Attorney General Pam Bondi, the proposed law would ban designer drugs according to their pharmaceutical action in the brain rather than their chemical structure.
“That’s how we can ban substances even before they appear,” Hall said.
The categories included in the ban include synthetic cathinones, of which flakka belongs, as well as synthetic opioids and synthetic cannabinoids.
The next front on the designer-drug battlefield has already revealed itself with the rise — locally and nationally — of heroin and its synthetic cousin, fentanyl.
An increase in heroin-fentanyl overdose deaths in October was noted by the Broward Medical Examiner’s Office. It now is in the process of creating a database to track the trend of such fatalities.
“Flakka is gone … fentanyl is the next big thing,” Chief Medical Examiner Craig Mallak wrote in an email. “Had five (fatal overdoses) in one day.”
While fentanyl and flakka are each very addictive, their high is radically different. Fentanyl, an opioid, is a heavy-duty painkiller. It triggers a sense of ultra-relaxed euphoria. Flakka, on the other hand, is a stimulant. It enhances alertness and energy. It also prompts a reaction called “excited delirium,” which combines aggression, delusions and hallucinations.
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