When Fort Lauderdale, Florida, police asked Matthew Kenney why he was barreling naked through an intersection last month, he said he was running from people who stole his clothes and wanted to kill him. He had to bolt through oncoming traffic because, he claimed, "if I got hit by a car they would stop chasing me."
He was high, obviously. The scary thing is what caused it.
Known chemically as Alpha-PVP, flakka causes euphoria and Hulk-like strength, along with paranoid delusions, hallucinations and a dangerously elevated heart rate and body temperature, which might be why Kenney was naked when he was detained. Flakka can be taken by smoking, vaping, ingesting or injecting.
A representative of the Drug Enforcement Agency's Miami field office confirmed to Mic that flakka, known in other parts of the country as gravel (it looks like the opaque crystals that line the bottom of fish tanks), is illegal. It's a synthetic cathinone, which is naturally found in the khat plant, a substance that's chewed in the Middle East and Africa for its cocaine-like stimulant effects.
Flakka's high is wild. It reportedly caused a man to impale himself on a police fence, another to make naked threats with a gun and another to try to kick in the door of a police department headquarters. It makes cocaine look like a stable, sensible party favor.
And unlike coke, it's cheap. Like, buy-it-with-the-change-stuck-in-your-couch cheap. So inexpensive that people are overdosing and dying all over Florida for the price of a Big Mac.
RC-Chemical, an industrial-research chemical retailer in Shenzhen City, China, sells five grams of flakka for $40. That's 80 cents for one standard dose, which is one tenth of a gram. In China, the chemicals are legal and come cheaply; many laboratories work with Alpha-PVP's ingredients. In fact, the country's laboratories have become a source for drug cartels in North and Central America.
"To operate a lab like this, you need a lot of chemicals, which are legitimate, regulated chemicals from the pharmaceutical industry," Jeremy Douglas, a senior U.N. drug official, told South China Morning Post. According to Douglas, drug-running gangs have regular access to the "precursor chemicals necessary to produce" substances like flakka. "There is some kind of corruption in the chemical/pharmaceutical industry ... allowing this to happen."
According to Detective Bill Schwartz of the Broward County Sheriff's Office in Florida, the chemicals coming from research labs in China are hitting his state hard.
Schwartz told Mic that cases of Alpha-PVP use jumped from zero to 190 in 2014. In the first three months of 2015, police have already seen 275 cases. The numbers pushed synthetic drug reports in Broward county to account for 34% of all narcotic cases, eclipsing cocaine for the first time in his two-decade tenure with the county sheriff's office.
"It's almost synonymous with what we saw in the crack-cocaine days," Schwartz told Mic. "It attacks the same communities. Not necessarily [a particular] race, creed or sex, but what we're seeing is coming from the lower-income neighborhoods. That's because the drug is readily available and very inexpensive on the streets."
"It's almost synonymous with what we saw in the crack-cocaine days." —Detective Bill Schwartz, Broward County, Florida, Sheriff's Office
Because flakka is still new, Schwartz says, the DEA can't keep up with regulating the drugs, essentially because the research labs in China can change the structure of the chemical and create new versions. Unlike with longer-established drugs like meth and MDMA, the risks and penalties for trafficking and consumption are still soft. The manufacturers know this, and they're shipping the drugs into the states while they can.
Flakka usage doesn't show any sign of slowing down. "It's getting much worse ... the numbers aren't waning at all," Schwartz told Mic. "It's like chemical warfare being waged on the community, and we're trying to be a sounding board and continue to push to understand a drug that's still not understood."
It's coming to colleges: A recent graduate from a Florida undergraduate college, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, told Mic she has heard of college students using flakka and a few other new designer drugs. While "responsible drug users" might not have embraced flakka a few years ago, she said, there's been a recent transition. "Responsibility is dead. ... If the drug doesn't fade away, as some fad drugs do, I wouldn't be surprised to see it become more widespread among the college students here."
One reason for that popularity: It's extremely easy to order flakka on the Internet. It takes longer to load YouTube videos of people purportedly high on flakka than it does to buy some online.
As long as you have Bitcoin, buying the stuff is a walk in the park — a park that's highly illegal, unreliable, dangerous and potentially life-ruining. Flakka is sold in drug marketplaces on the Dark Web, an un-Google-able part of the Internet only accessible with a special browser called an onion router. This dark online corner hosts everything from child pornography to hardcore narcotics to alleged terrorist activity. Flakka fits right in.
Once you find a drug marketplace on the Dark Web, it's simple enough to browse multiple options, select the substance you want and pick a supplier. When you place an order, the seller confirms your encrypted details (usually your shipping name and address). If the product is in stock, it gets delivered in discreet packaging.
We don't recommend buying drugs on the Dark Web. Online drug deals get busted, their marketplaces get shut down constantly and undercover law enforcement officers lurk in the shadows. But unlike rare drugs that can only be found online, the spurning of Dark Web marketplaces won't stop America's streets from squeezing Alpha-PVP into the bellies of hungry, poor addicts. We'll see more Matthew Kenneys running through the streets of Florida — not to mention Alabama, Mississippi, Texas and Ohio.
A cheap drug designed to get you prodigiously high is hard to pass up. There's nothing stopping the death toll from continuing to rise.