Last week, a 22-year-old woman was arraigned for conspiring with her boyfriend to sell flakka, the lab-grown drug that has flooded the streets of South Florida, causing users to do things that land them in jail and/or on the front page of the Drudge Report.
Among other things, the case has revealed where flakka is coming from: China.
According to a criminal complaint, in March, DEA agents were alerted by British counterparts that multiple packages containing flakka bound for Palm Beach County Florida had been intercepted. The packages had been shipped from Hong Kong by a Chinese chemical company using a Dubai-based shipping firm called Aramex. (Orders are taken from any number of easily accessible websites.)
Two officials in Broward County, Florida, which has become ground-zero for flakka use in the U.S., confirmed to Fusion that their sources all indicate China is responsible for almost all the flakka they’re seeing.
“We have no reason to believe it’s being manufactured anywhere else,” said Det. William Schwartz of the Broward County Sheriff’s Office.
China was already known to be the source of previous popular synthetic drugs like Molly (MDMA) and bath salts (MDPV), he said.
Indeed, according to a report from the Independent newspaper in London, China’s central role in producing synthetic drugs goes back at least seven years. In 2010, Independent reporters gained access to a drug facility in Shanghai by posing as customers. Its owner said that two years prior he had converted his factory from a generic drugmaker into an industrial meth lab. He was living in a luxury villa and driving an SUV, and showed little remorse about overdoses the drugs had contributed to.
Five years later, the scenario he described — of Chinese chemists taking note of which chemical compound has been banned by which country, and making minor tweaks to the basic structure so that it becomes legal to ship again — is largely unchanged, Schwartz said. While the penalties for possessing Molly and bath salts are now severe in the U.S., Schwartz said, the drugmakers remain a step ahead.
“The chemists are fully aware of the laws in the U.S.”
And alpha-PVP, flakka’s lone ingredient, is the cheapest drug yet, going for as little as $3 a dose (usually 1/10th of a gram). It’s being shipped ready-to-use, which is one of the reasons why it is so inexpensive, Dr. John Cunha, a physician in the Ft. Lauderdale Holy Cross Hospital’s emergency department, told Fusion.
While they’ve reached out to Chinese counterparts on addressing flows of other synthetic drugs, it’s not clear what actions the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees both the Drug Enforcement Administration and U.S. Customs and Border Protection, is taking to tackle flakka. Neither agency responded to requests for comment.
Cunha said it’s hard to say why flakka has become so popular in South Florida, but that several factors are likely involved.
First, the area has a large homeless population, and this group is also more prone to drug use. Because it is so cheap, flakka has an outsized appeal.
The area is also still recovering from its “pill mill” boom. You may remember that several years ago there was an explosion of oxycodone and oxycontin use. You don’t hear much about that kind of thing now because authorities passed a flurry of laws and carried out enforcement actions that destroyed their distributors, most of which were in the U.S.
Partially as a result of the sweep, a host of drug rehab centers have opened up, which has had the perverse effect of creating a new market of flakka users, not all of whom are down to a few fivers.
“[The centers] are bringing in patients from the East Coast, from up north and the Midwest,” Cunha said. “[Families] are shipping their 20 something-year olds here, when the family wants them to clean up, they send to do a rehab stint in Florida.
“So you have a bunch of places that have opened catering to this population, because it’s big business, and now we have an at-risk population coming from somewhere else, who have cash…and that’s another pump to the business end of it.”
And there is no sign of letting up. At a press conference yesterday, Broward officials said they were seeing cases of flakka almost daily, racking up 250 this year alone compared with 190 cases in all of 2014.
"We'll arrest those that are selling it and trafficking it, and I believe we'll bring a successful end to it," Sheriff Scott Israel said.
Rob covers business, economics and the environment for Fusion. He previously worked at Business Insider. He grew up in Chicago.