Trends come and go, preferences ebb and flow and names change with the speed of a fighter jet. It can be difficult to keep up with the latest hip drug of choice, but it’s important to remain aware of what’s happening out on the street, inside schools, behind closed doors at college dorms or out in the open at frat parties across the country. This week, the buzz is about something called “flakka” (aka “gravel”), a substance Gawker refers to as the latest “moral-panic death drug.”
Everything Old Is New Again
What do they mean by “moral panic”? Just as opium, pot, cocaine and heroin caused a moral uproar in previous generations, substances like krokodil, bath salts, jenkum, meow meow, and now flakka have people similarly up in arms. Each generation’s drug of choice gets parents, law enforcement and some segments of society in a panic. But it’s important to note that while the response may seem overly dramatic, the concern isn’t unfounded. Calling it a panic can be dismissive and seem to diminish the very real dangers of these powerful drugs.
While these trendy new substances may not have the widespread popularity of alcohol or Ritalin among students or meth in rural areas throughout the US, they come on the scene fast and make a noticeable mark. ER visits spike and irreparable damage is done – usually before healthcare and treatment professionals can even determine what they’re dealing with.
In Search of Post-pot Thrills
If we’re placing blame for the rise in experimentation with more extreme substances, some of it may rest at the feet of the states where marijuana has been legalized. As pot loses its “illicit” cachet, young people in particular are in search of new thrills that a legal, easily available substance just can’t offer. After all, it’s hard to rebel by using a legal drug in the way it was intended.
Of course drugs like ecstasy managed to become very popular well before marijuana was legalized anywhere in the US, so pot isn’t the sole culprit. Sites like Gawker insist that the rise in drugs like flakka can be attributed to trying to fill a “thrill-void.” That may very well be true. While addiction is the result of a physical craving, initial drug experimentation often begins out of boredom, thrill-seeking or a desire to dull unwanted feelings and emotions.
Getting Beyond the Hype
However flakka arrived on the scene, it’s here now, so it’s our responsibility to find out more about it. Flakka’s moniker is derived from Spanish slang for a beautiful woman. The nickname gravel, used in some parts of the country, comes from the drug’s appearance. It looks like white crystal chunks that have been compared to aquarium gravel. Like so many popular drugs today, flakka is man-made and is very versatile as it can be smoked, injected or snorted.
Flakka’s Effect on the Body
Flakka causes a high similar to cocaine, with the chemicals in the drug binding and thwarting molecules on the surface of neurons that normally keep levels of our mood-regulating neurotransmitters dopamine and serotonin in check. The brain is flooded with these chemicals, providing a high that lasts several hours. While that’s the desired effect, taking the drug can cause permanent neurological damage, destroying neurons altogether. Kidney damage is also a concern. Overdose is also a real issue. Like it’s synthetic cousin bath salts, it can be much more dangerous than cocaine. Part of the problem comes in controlling the dosage.
“Just a little bit of difference in how much is consumed can be the difference between getting high and dying. It’s that critical,” CCN reports, citing Jim Hall, a drug abuse epidemiologist at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
A flakka overdose can produce anything from excited delirium to spikes in body temperature and paranoia. The scariest side effect is the feeling of extreme strength and fury users feel after using the drug.
Synthetic Drug Dangers
Synthetic drugs are so dangerous, at least in part, because they’re marketed and sold as legal alternatives to marijuana, cocaine, meth and heroin. There’s a thrill for the user while giving them a false sense of security as well. Many of the chemicals used in synthetic drugs are manufactured overseas and sold online in bulk for import to the US. Once here, they’re combined and packaged for sale to unsuspecting thrill seekers. To cover their liability, the drugs companies even label their products as “not for human consumption,” despite the reality that they serve no other legitimate purpose. It’s all about attempting to avoid prosecution.
As flakka makes the rounds, horror stories are beginning to circulate. Tales that are reminiscent of bad acid trips in the 1960s have authorities concerned. As with many of these drugs, they are concentrated in regions where their popularity seems to soar. Florida has been particularly hard hit by flakka overdoses, with South Florida’s Broward County seeing three or four hospitalizations a day due to the drug.
Like most synthetic drugs, much of the flakka available in the US comes from China and is sold at gas stations, convenience stores and over the Internet. So it’s easy to get, unpredictable and a dose only costs a few dollars, adding to its popularity.
A federal ban is very likely at some point, but the problem is that when these synthetic substances are banned, manufacturers simply produce similar alternatives and the process starts all over again.
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