Media Hysteria Over 'Zombie' Drug Flakka Creating Stigma & Harm

Dubbed "$5 insanity" and "the world’s scariest drug," alpha-PVP, better known by its street-name flakka, is the latest narcotic to be misrepresented as capable of turning men into monsters, obscuring histories of long-term mental health conditions and stigmatising low-income people who use drugs.

Flakka has been cast as the dangerous new street drug, imbued with the ability to turn its users into superhumanly strong ‘zombies’ supposedly impervious to pain and totally out of control.

New York local news outlet PIX 11 reported that 50 year-old Florida resident James West attempted to break into a police station’s locked door whilst under the influence of flakka using brute force.  Despite the supposed ‘superhuman strength’ that the PIX 11 claimed the drug had given him, he only managed to slightly crack the door using heavy rocks.

New York Post reported that after smoking flakka Florida resident Leroy Strothers had been spotted naked on a rooftop threatening to shoot himself and passers-by.

However they don’t mention Strothers has a history of committing aggravated assault and is currently being charged with robbery.

Similarly media outlets CBS Miami and Vice News cite a horrifying story of a man on flakka whose leg was impaled while climbing a police station fence after hallucinating an angry mob was chasing him. Neither of these articles mentions that the man told the police he had been diagnosed with schizophrenia, preferring to blame flakka. 

The media’s focus on obviously exceptional cases worries New York University drug researcher Dr. Palamar, who speculated that there are likely considerable instances of people taking flakka and not experiencing these exceptional symptoms.  Vice News reports that Dr. Palamar warned:

“…individuals who lose control on flakka may already have psychological issues and be on psychiatric medications, and might be addicted to other drugs like crystal meth.”

Flakka is a street name for alpha-PVP, a synthetic cathinone chemically similar to bath salts which produces comparable effects to stimulants like amphetamines.  Also known in some parts of the United States as gravel, a single dose of flakka is sold for just $5; a price that skews the demographic towards people with low incomes unable to afford other drugs. 

According to the Justice Policy Institute, low income neighbourhoods are more likely to be heavily and proactively policed than high income areas. Open air drug use is a necessity for those without stable housing further driving up contact with the police and increasing the likelihood of being apprehended whilst at the peak of drug use effects.

Put simply: the police are more likely to see someone high on flakka than on cocaine or ketamine as their drug use is more likely to be on the streets or in semi-public spaces like stairwells or public toilets. These then become the cases the media report on.

In many ways, flakka hysteria is a microcosm of previous media scare stories in which low income individuals, particularly when they are people of colour, are demonised for drug use. This despite the fact that white Americans are more likely than black Americans to use drugs according to a 2011 survey from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

All three of the stories previously discussed concern African American men, harkening back to racially biased media depiction of crack use in the eighties.

In 1987 the New York Times published an article claiming that “Smokers often search the floor for specks of crack that do not exist, accuse each other of stealing crack they never had and attack each other with knives or with the butane torches used to smoke the drug”.

This myth of crack-induced violence, found to have no basis in reality by academic researchers, was combined with racially coded language like ‘inner city’ and ‘ghetto’ to typify crack cocaine use as prevalent among African Americans and its users as violent and aggressive.

The same New York Times article even quoted Dr Charles Watli, the chief medical examiner of Dade County Florida, as having discovered:

“a syndrome called cocaine-related delirium in which the police found people who had used cocaine wildly yelling, screaming or running through the streets. In more than a dozen cases, the victims had to be restrained and then died suddenly”.

Replace cocaine with flakka and the New York Times article could have been written months ago. In fact just this year epidemiologist at Nova Southeastern University Jim Hall is quoted by CBS News as diagnosing flakka users with:

“[a] syndrome referred to as excited delirium… [the] individual becomes psychotic, they often rip off their clothes and run out into the street violently and have an adrenaline-like strength… once they are restrained, if they don't receive immediate medical attention they can die."

The uncanny similarity between the two descriptions demonstrates the willingness to pathologize people who use drugs without accepting any contextualising information about their mental health or emotional state. 

People who regularly engage in public drug use, especially of strong stimulants like flakka, are more likely to have insecure housing – a situation that can be both a consequence and cause of mental health problems.

The fear at the core of media hysteria that drugs can make a person ‘evil’ or give them ‘superhuman’ qualities dehumanises people who use drugs and prevents observers from accurately gauging the needs of people who use drugs and the difficulties they may face.

People from low-income areas who use drugs in public need supervised injection facilities if injecting drug users, effective treatment interventions and long-term support to rebuild stable lives, including possible psychiatric support and access to secure housing. The last thing they need is the stigma and demonization that the media offers, stigma that makes these necessary measures less achievable.