In Florida, law enforcement officials said the drug led a man to run naked through a neighborhood, try to have sex with a tree, and claim to be the mythical god Thor. In New York State, a local agent with the Drug Enforcement Administration called the drug "rat poison." That drug is flakka, the synthetic drug reportedly linked to deranged behavior in several states around the country — and at the center of the latest drug hysteria.
"It actually starts to rewire the brain chemistry. They have no control over their thoughts. They can't control their actions," Don Maines, a drug treatment counselor with the Broward Sheriff's Office in Fort Lauderdale, told the Associated Press. "It seems to be universal that they think someone is chasing them. It's just a dangerous, dangerous drug."
But these assertions are unfounded to the people who study new psychoactive drugs, which have been increasingly synthesized by chemists in secretive labs over the past few years. Bryce Pardo, a drug policy expert at the University of Maryland (UMD), said, "I scratch my head at these [claims]. … How do you figure? Because no one has actually established the harms."
Peter Reuter, another UMD drug policy expert who's co-writing a paper on synthetic drugs with Pardo, said the media often exaggerates the risks of new drugs. "It is well-known that every new drug is the most dangerous drug that ever came along," he joked. "This is a fear of the unknown. I'm sure a lot of these are nasty drugs, but nastier than methamphetamine? That's a high standard." He added, "These tend to be niche drugs that fade away pretty quickly."
Warranted or not, the public concern is very real. It seems like six months no longer go by without the media highlighting new fears about an exotic drug that could make us all crazy. Just a couple of years ago, the media drummed up concerns about new psychoactive substances when a man, who turned out to not be on synthetic drugs, allegedly tried to eat someone's face while on bath salts. And synthetic marijuana — also known as "spice" — has reportedly contributed to a rise in emergency room visits and poisonings, according to the New York Times's Alan Schwarz.
Part of that is rooted in the fact that different synthetic drugs are coming out more often as chemists use new techniques and sophisticated computer models to craft substances. The European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction, which tracks these drugs, has found a steady rise in new psychoactive substances over the past decade:
Dozens of new substances are introduced into the market every year. Most of them come and go without any media attention. But when a drug like flakka, which is apparently cheap and easily attainable, allegedly leads to some erratic behavior in a state like Florida or New York, the media quickly jumps on it.
Experts say this feeds into the perception that new drugs are all dangerous, and governments react to this fear with sweeping bans on the substances — even though the experimentation behind many of these drugs could lead to promising medical innovation.
"The public's image is that these are new drugs, and new drugs are scary," Pardo said. "I think the public's reaction is driving discourse more than these drugs themselves."
The media narrative drives unfounded fears of all new drugs
The bizarre media stories feed into the narrative that new synthetic drugs are all dangerous. But drug policy experts caution that many of these drugs are harmless, and the most harmful substances are naturally flushed out of circulation as word of mouth and press push down demand.
Sometimes the media coverage is justified, as synthetic drugs have been linked to serious problems in the past. For example, synthetic marijuana can cause nausea, vomiting, agitation, seizures, unusually fast heartbeat, unusually slow heartbeat, and, potentially, brain damage and strokes.
But it's also the case that the media tends to exaggerate the effects of these drugs. Synthetic bath salts caused a panic when they were blamed for a 2012 attack in which a man reportedly chewed off another person's face in Miami. It later turned out the attacker wasn't on any synthetic drugs — but that correction came only after various headlines characterized bath salts as to blame for a "face-eating cannibal."
Similarly, there have been multiple news stories about people on flakka running nude and engaging in other bizarre behavior. One person ran from a pack of imaginary German shepherds. Another tried to have sex with a tree. Two reportedly tried to break into the Fort Lauderdale Police Department, apparently fleeing from people they believed were chasing them — and one of them wound up impaled on a fence, according to the AP.
But while these stories are eye-catching, the accounts are early, the toxicology reports might not be done, the people involved might have been influenced by something else, and what people are calling flakka could turn out to be different substances that producers and sellers misleadingly labeled as the same drug. Still, these sensational tales contribute to the public thinking that flakka, like other synthetic drugs, is a grave public health threat.
That's not to say that flakka is necessarily safe. Hamilton Morris, a writer and chemist who studies drugs, explained, "These [synthetic drugs] are often run-of-the-mill stimulants. But like all stimulants, caffeine included, taking unreasonably high doses for prolonged periods of time can result in psychosis."
If a drug does turn out to be dangerous, there's a good chance it will come and go with limited impact. About 98 percent of drugs disappear from the market within a few months of their introduction, according to research on the European market by the Amsterdam Institute for Addiction Research.
"The market's very much self-regulating," Reuter of UMD said. "These drugs quickly get a bad reputation, and the demand dies out."
The narrative scares the government into prohibition
The narrative that synthetic drugs are dangerous often convinces governments to react with sweeping bans. After all, if any of the horror stories turn out to be remotely true, government officials would be the first to face the political consequences for acting too slowly when a drug epidemic spirals out of control and kills people. These are drugs that are sometimes seriously dangerous and kill people's children, friends, and family members. It's not unreasonable for the general public to expect different levels of government do something, especially when — as occurred with synthetic marijuana — use of the drug suddenly spikes.
Following horror stories about synthetic marijuana and bath salts in 2012, the US Drug Enforcement Administration added both types of substances to its most restrictive drug schedule. And flakka, which is the street name for the synthetic cathinone alpha-PVP, was already prohibited by the DEA in 2014.
In other countries, the reaction has been even more sweeping. Ireland, for example, banned all psychoactive drugs unless they are otherwise noted in the law to be legal, leaving only alcohol, tobacco, and medicines exempted.
The sweeping bans demonstrate that it's not quite right to say, as many stories on synthetic drugs claim, that chemists are putting out new substances more quickly than governments can ban them. Governments can prohibit the drugs — Ireland has even banned substances that don't exist yet. The issue, experts say, is whether governments should.
"The greater good might be served by taking a slower approach to it," Pardo said. "Granted, this is very politically hard to do when kids are having seizures, people are dying, or people are just generally afraid of these substances."
Drug policy experts are concerned that taking a ham-fisted approach to all new drugs will inhibit real medical innovation. If chemists are effectively prohibited from producing new psychoactive substances, or uncertain about whether a new type of substance is illegal, they may opt to not bother trying at all. "There's a real concern that it will be a major impediment to research," Reuter said.
The irony is that some of this medical innovation could actually lead to safer drugs. Pardo and Reuter both said that chemists could develop recreational drugs that are safer but produce a similar effect as, for example, alcohol. Alcohol is fully legal and causes an estimated 88,000 deaths each year — is banning a potentially safer replacement really in the interest of public health?
Synthetic drugs aren't going away anytime soon
Regardless of how governments react, synthetic drugs most likely won't go away anytime soon. As long as the vast majority of established recreational drugs remain illegal, people are going to continue to look for alternatives that can avoid prohibition.
This, Morris pointed out, is the internal contradiction of governments trying to ban synthetic drugs: It will only lead chemists and producers to try to find new substances. The media is "scaring people into thinking that prohibition is a valid response to these problems," Morris said. "In reality, these problem are a direct result of prohibition."
Pardo and Reuter agreed. "Prohibition is the thing that's driving a lot of this — the motive to design new drugs to skirt the laws," Pardo said. "A lot of people say if we legalized marijuana and ecstasy, a lot of this would go away. I share that opinion, especially with marijuana."
But this race between the government and chemists could make drugs more dangerous as they introduce more compounds to evade prohibition — or to simply make them more potent. "The motivation is not to make anything more toxic but to make something more potent," Morris said. "Unfortunately, they can be more toxic as well."
This potentially deadly race, along with the possible medical innovations that could come out of the production of new synthetic drugs, has convinced some experts that governments should take a slower, more hands-off approach to new psychoactive substances — or risk perpetuating a dangerous cycle that's been playing out for decades.
"There's no end of this," Morris said. "I don't understand how the DEA can possibly think that outlawing hundreds of new substances is somehow going to do something that wasn't accomplished with the 500-plus substances they've already scheduled."
He added, "There are many other areas of human life where we've accepted risk. I think we need to view drug use the same way — like rock climbing, horseback riding, and skydiving."
That may mean accepting the risk of a handful of people running in the streets nude while on flakka along with the possibility that — just maybe — one of the next new drugs will be a breakthrough for public health.