By now everyone has seen the footage: young men and women in radically altered states in the street, the results of consuming the drug flakka, a synthetic bath-salt type drug that can be purchased for as little as $5.
Almost all of these incidents arose in South Florida.
But while the region has seen the most high-profile cases—and indeed, remains the entry point for the flood of synthetic drugs coming in from China—flakka has officially spread nationwide.
Fusion pulled data from a report issued last year showing that incidents involving the use and sale of flakka—known chemically as alpha-PVP—was already well beyond Florida by the time the first reports about its use were coming out.
While the south saw almost half of all alpha-PVP cases as of mid-May last year, states in the northeast and the midwest both saw more than 500 cases last year.
As early as the winter of 2013, a Pennsylvania man and his wife were found to have been dealing alpha-PVP, with another Pennsylvania man arrested in April 2014 for doing the same, at which point the drug had become known as “gravel” (and not yet flakka).
In the Midwest, three Michigan men were caught selling flakka in April 2013, and were sentenced a year later to lengthy prison terms, and a 53-year-old Iowa woman was sentenced last year for selling it in June 2013.
It is safe to say Flakka has yet to be rooted out of those areas since this map was published.
In a case that laid bare how some go about acquiring flakka, which is easily ordered online, a 22-year-old from the tony suburb of Pelham, N.Y. man was accused of using fake names and bogus bank accounts to smuggle packages of alpha-PVP into the U.S. His scheme was busted when customs agents at JFK airport inspected a shipment of rabbit-shaped lamps from China to a UPS mailbox he maintained using a fake name. The lamps turned out to contain more than a pound of alpha-PVP.
Early in June 2015, the Suffolk County Board of Health in New York issued a county-wide warning about the drug.
“The Board of Health has brought to my attention the emergence of this substance and its devastating effects on the human body,” Dr. James L. Tomarken, Commissioner of Health Services said in the statement. “Flakka is exceptionally dangerous. Parents and guardians, children, adults, educators, law enforcement and health professionals need to be aware of its potentially devastating effects.”
A board rep says there had not yet been any confirmed cases of flakka that the organization was aware of, but Suffolk County continues to find itself in the midst of a heroin epidemic and the board is looking to be proactive.
The largest epicenter of flakka outside Florida may be southern Ohio, which has already seen a number of cases in the past eight months. In November, an unidentified Ironton, Ohio, woman arrested while on the substance told local station 10TV’s Kristyn Hartman that, “(It) felt wonderful, like I was the happiest person in the world,” but that, “If you hit it too many times, you’ll be up a couple of days hallucinating.”
A police officer from nearby Coal Grove told her that he had “encountered his fair share of ‘alpha’ on patrol.
“It’s the craziest drug I’ve ever encountered on the streets,” Mike Delawder said.
In January, two brothers were arrested for selling the substance.
“We had been having a lot of complaints from citizens about the sale of alpha-PVP,” Detective Joe Ross told the Ironton Tribune.
And in May, four Ironton residents ranging in age from 30 to 55 were arrested for selling the drug.
“Since the pill mills started drying up, heroin has been making big come back, and then people started reaching out to synthetics like alpha,” Lawrence County Sheriff Jeffrey Lawless told Fusion. “It all contributes to the war on [drugs] we’re fighting.”
The Obama Administration is well aware of the problem.
“Communities across the U.S. face major health consequences associated with the rising number of identified new psychoactive substances,” Mario Moreno Zepeda, press secretary at the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, said in a statement. “The Obama Administration is working with international and domestic partners to reduce the manufacturing, trafficking, and availability of these synthetic substances.”
But for now, Florida remains the epicenter. Since last September, there have been 24 flakka-related deaths in Broward County, Florida, with a third coming in the past month alone, according to Jim Hall, an epidemiologist at Nova Southeastern University.
“You’ve got a lot of import and export companies here,” Broward County Detective Dana Swisher told Fusion. “When this type of a drug comes in whether it be this drug or another drug, unfortunately Broward seems to be very big on getting on the front end of it.”
For more of Fusion’s drug coverage, check out Drug Wars