Just under 1% of American teenagers are knowingly using the synthetic drug flakka, according to new research.
“The main finding was that less than 1% of high school seniors are estimated to have used flakka in the past year,” said Joseph Palamar, an associate professor of population health at NYU Langone and lead author of the study, published Tuesday in the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence.
The research, which Palamar said is the first national study on flakka use, analyzed data from Monitoring the Future, an annual survey that looks at drug use in high school students, conducted by the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan.
The study found that of the students who said they had used flakka in the previous year, 19.2% had used it more than 40 times. Those who used it knowingly were more likely to live away from their parents and to have used other drugs.
“The importance is that we are able to draw attention to this dangerous drug right now,” Palamar said. “We finally have prevalence estimates on a national sample, which hasn’t been done yet.”
However, even more people could have used flakka without necessarily knowing it.
“I think a lot of people are using without realizing it, particularly ecstasy users, Molly users,” he said.
Other experts agree.
“The thing that we found very clearly – and we know this from the novel psychoactive substance world – people say they are taking something, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that that’s what’s in it. We know this from ecstasy,” said Dr. Dan Castellanos, chair of the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Health at Florida International University, who was not involved in the new research.
In Castellanos’ own research, only one of six samples analyzed actually contained flakka, even though the users believed that’s what they were taking.
The stimulant, which Castellanos said has been called “the poor person’s cocaine,” led to 80 deaths in Florida alone between September 2014 and December 2015, according to the new study. There were 2,000 emergency department visits related to its use in Broward County during that period; 15% were people under the age of 25. One of the youngest, according to the research, was a 13-year-old.
Flakka, also known as gravel, is in the class of novel psychoactive substances, Castellanos said. Some related products are called bath salts. It can be smoked, injected or snorted.
“Although they are not like your tub salts, they look like it sometimes,” he said. “These are all novel psychoactive substances, which means that they are made chemically; they are imported; there are multiple variations; there are different peaks and outbreaks over time.”
Flakka is also a stimulant. “It really gets people very, very agitated,” Castellanos said. “That includes things like agitation, effects on all the typical systems of your body, increased blood pressure, pulse, sometimes even your temperature.”
It has also become known for more severe reactions, including one man who broke down hurricane doors after using the drug and a woman who ran through the streets screaming that she was Satan.
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“What really stands out about flakka is the wacky behavior that is sometimes associated with its use,” Palamar said. “It is bizarre, and you will see that word, even in medical journals, because there is no other way to describe it.”
Although not everyone who uses the drug has these reactions, Palamar still cautioned against its use.
“That’s one thing that needs to be known: It doesn’t have that effect on everyone who uses it,” he said. “It is a very dangerous drug. It’s a very potent drug. It’s as potent as methamphetamine.”
Journalist Carina Storrs contributed to this report.