(By Walton Golightly)
In November the first reports surfaced of ‘flakka’ hitting Durban, with the ‘zombie drug’ already allegedly on sale in Chatsworth, Pinetown and Wentworth, costing users anything from R400 to R1 000
Hundreds of videos on social media purport to show the violent behaviour of those who have taken flakka. Google ‘flakka’ and you’re sure to come upon the horrific account of a flakka-crazed Florida man who gnawed on and disfigured another man’s face before he was shot to death by police. (At least that’s one version – others have an entire family being attacked.)
The 2016 incident led to the designer drug being linked to cannibalism, but toxicology reports showed the man did not have flakka in his system, notes Shaun Shelly‚ founder of SA Drug Policy Week and a researcher at the International Drug Policy Consortium.
“Don’t believe all the panic that’s out there‚ but it doesn’t mean the drug is safe‚” he says in a recent interview, adding that ‘zombie drug’ is a misnomer.
Spreading ‘horror stories’ creates “misinformation and the wrong reactions,” says Shelly. “It means we overreact to the drug and we don’t develop facts around it. Such inaccurate talk is not in anyone’s favour.”
Evidence suggests more and more synthetic drugs are being created, says Shelly. This is to escape detection in blood tests or police searches. The drugs aren’t tested, and go straight from “from labs to humans”, he adds.
“As chemists move further and further away from original synthetic compounds and develop new derivatives‚ they move into unknown territory,” continues Shelly. “Synthetic drugs change rapidly and this makes it hard to know what they do to humans and what the long term effects are.
“Exercise extreme caution in taking untested drugs,” warns Shelly. “These are synthetic novel psychoactive substances that can be dangerous and have unknown long term effects.”
Some flakka facts:
- Flakka is typically made from alpha-PVP, a powerful stimulant in the cathinone class. Cathinones are chemicals derived from the khat plant originating in the Middle East and Somalia, where the leaves are frequently chewed for a ‘buzz’.
- Flakka comes in a foul-smelling white or pink crystalline form. It can be eaten, snorted, injected or vaporised in an electronic cigarette device. The street name comes from the Spanish flaco meaning ‘skinny’ or ‘lean’. Because of its appearance, the drug is also known as ‘gravel’.
- Research shows flakka to be as potent as methamphetamine, with an even higher propensity for addiction. The amphetamine quality doubtless accounts for the ‘demonic’ or ‘superhuman’ strength seemingly displayed by ‘amped up’ users.
- As with other stimulants, flakka releases a flood of dopamine in the brain. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that helps regulate the brain’s reward and pleasure centres. The drug also hinders the reuptake of dopamine by the brain cells, producing an intense feeling of euphoria.
- Other short-term effects include rapid heart rate and palpitations; increase in blood pressure; alertness; aggressive behaviour.
- Fatigue and depression ensue when the drug wears off. This often leads to users taking more of the drug to get rid of the negative feelings, jump-starting a cycle that can lead to addiction. As tolerance to the drug develops, the user will require more and more flakka to feel high.
- It can cause psychosis‚ especially in people who have a predisposition for psychotic states. This can be compounded by taking lots of different drugs at the same time and not sleeping or eating.
- At high doses, the user’s temperature will soar; this can lead to muscle breakdown and kidney damage.
- Long-term effects are not yet known, but research shows abuse over time can cause renal failure.
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