This past December, 34-year-old Ft. Lauderdale resident Bobby Henry Jr. posted a video titled "Flocka Is Destroying USA" that shows a young woman getting drenched by the rain, apparently oblivious to her surroundings.
"This is what flakka is doing in our hood," he says in the clip.
Four months later, the common spelling of the drug has changed, but flakka poses no less of a threat — especially among South Florida's most impoverished residents.
"A lot of people don't have anything to live for," Henry told Fusion. "Crack-heads are out and flakka-heads are in."
WHAT IS FLAKKA?
The drug, which can produce powerful hallucinogenic effects comparable to those produced by bath salts, has garnered national attention in past week or so, with the Drudge Report linking to three different stories on its apparent newfound prevalence. One man was found running naked through the streets of Ft. Lauderdale, and another tried to break into the streets of police headquarters.
But Henry, who says he sees users in front of his custom jewelry office all the time, says it's actually been around for "a long time," and that it's just another synthetic drug like crystal meth that dealers have given a new name to.
"It’s a cheap drug—it’s a cheap, powerful drug," he said. "It gives them a high they can’t get from smoking weed or cocaine. They don't have to spend so much money to get a good high."
WHY IS IT CALLED "FLAKKA?" DOES IT HAVE ANYTHING TO DO WITH WAKA FLOCKA FLAME?
There's no evidence that flakka is named after the Atlanta rapper, but nobody really knows where the name comes from. It could be a variation of "la flaca," a Spanish slang phrase meaning "skinny girl." Or it could simply be random.
For what it's worth, Henry of Ft. Lauderdale says it's random. “It’s just some crazy name for the way [it] makes you feel," he says. "There’s no way of telling [where the name came from], they just put a cool name with it, and once it [got] going…today’s youth ran with it.”
WHERE DID IT COME FROM?
One of the first online mentions of the drug appears to have been last August, on the blog of a drug treatment center. Even by then, the writer warns that it has begun "causing havoc on the streets in the southern states, especially Florida" thanks to its cheap price. Flakka can be snorted, injected, smoked, or taken orally.
In October, the Broward Sun Sentinel published a story in which the county crime lab reckoned that since February they'd seen more than 100 cases of individuals testing positive for the active ingredient in flakka, a stimulant developed in the 1960s called alpha-PVP.
Today, alpha-PVP is manufactured in overseas pharmaceutical plants and shipped all over the world. It was only declared a controlled substance in January 2014, and only then on an emergency declaration from the Justice Department, so large quantities may have been able to make it to the U.S. without too much precaution.
"It's definitely more affordable than crystal meth," the paper quoted a Ft. Lauderdale police sergeant as saying. Flakka costs about $150 for an eighth of an ounce, compared with $450 for the same amount of crystal meth, the paper said.
WHO’S USING IT?
Poor people, mostly. Captain Dana Swisher of the Ft. Lauderdale police department told Fusion via e-mail that the force had definitely noticed an increase in local usage, concentrated in low-income neighborhoods.
"We have seen it predominantly in the low income areas of the city which are represented by several races and both genders," he said. "This drug is not used by any specific race or gender, but its effects are quite dangerous to the user."
WHAT ARE ITS HEALTH EFFECTS?
In a recent presentation on the drug, John Cunha, an emergency-services physician at Holy Cross hospital in Broward County, said that users consider flakka to be the new crack or heroin, echoing Henry's remarks. He compared the worst-case after effects of the drug to what can happen, in rare instances, to someone who runs a marathon, wherein muscle tissue starts to decompose and break down into the blood stream. That can lead to kidney failure and death.
"[Users] think they're getting a combination drug that will allow them to find a happy medium," he said. "They'll get enough but not too high, and low enough but not too low, so that it balances out. This is the common myth on the street, that this flakka drug is crack and heroin, or crack and meth, or meth and heroin mixed together. Unfortunately it’s neither."
Jim Hall, an epidemiologist at the Center for Applied Research on Substance Use and Health Disparities at Nova Southeastern University, told CBS that flakka use leads to a state of "excited delirium." He added, "The individual becomes psychotic, they often rip off their clothes and run out into the street violently and have an adrenaline-like strength and police are called and it takes four or five officers to restrain them. Then once they are restrained, if they don't receive immediate medical attention they can die."
WHAT DOES SOMEONE ON FLAKKA LOOK LIKE?
It's bad. In February, a video was posted to YouTube showing a young African-American male in Ft. Lauderdale sitting on the ground with nothing but his shoes and boxers. (We don't know for sure that the man is on flakka, but his actions seem consistent with those of other flakka users.)
A man comes by and tries to help him, but realizes how far gone he is and gives up.
"Flakka f***ed him like that," the man says.
And be sure to check out our series, Drug Wars
Rob covers business, economics and the environment for Fusion. He previously worked at Business Insider. He grew up in Chicago.