Last summer, Tianga made frequent trips to this flakka hot spot as media from around the world descended on South Florida to document the synthetic stimulant’s devastating effects. Flakka addicts were everywhere. Running into traffic. Zoned-out on curbs. Sometimes naked. Sometimes in the grips of a drug-fueled psychosis.
Similar scenes unfolded across Broward County, the drug’s ground zero in the United States. The public was alarmed. Tianga of the county sheriff’s office was, too. He had never seen a drug hit so hard, so fast.
But now, as Tianga pulled up, his honey hole was quiet.
“This is incredible. I can’t find even one person,” the lieutenant said, scanning the gas station lot that once served as a den for flakka deals. He kept searching, driving past an alley where users gathered. He pointed to the electrical boxes that addicts liked to hide behind. He cruised for several blocks.
“I can’t believe this,” Tianga said.
In just a few months, and with little attention, flakka has disappeared from South Florida.
Experts say drug epidemics almost never burn out like this. Look at the current distress in vast swaths of the country over heroin and its synthetic cousin fentanyl. What happened in Florida, experts say, was the result of unprecedented coordination among local groups to fight flakka’s demand and — most importantly — the unusual willingness of the Chinese government to halt flakka’s production. Florida officials early on blamed overseas labs for supplying the drug flooding American shores.
The result was a rare reprieve in the fight against synthetic drugs.
But even today, few people realize the depth of the flakka crisis in Broward County, a beach-lined locale with 1.8 million residents and familiarity with drug crazes of the past.
Flakka was different. Emergency services in Broward were strained by the strange and often violent reactions of flakka users. Police regularly needed four and five officers to subdue a single agitated person. Local emergency rooms were overwhelmed by the number of flakka-induced delirium cases. Traditional drug treatment programs had to be retooled. This escalated for months as addicts sought out flakka’s potent high at just $5 a hit.
“At the height of the flakka craze, you were almost praying for crack cocaine to come back,” recalled Don Maines, a drug treatment counselor with the sheriff’s office.
Jim Hall, an epidemiologist at Nova Southeastern University, had never heard of flakka until police in the county seat of Fort Lauderdale reported seeing a few cases in late 2014. And even as its popularity soared, the drug remained centered on South Florida. It popped up sporadically across the country. But no one had any experience with flakka.
“First thing we had to do was figure out how to spell it,” Hall said.
Flakka’s chemical name is alpha-PVP. And it was stronger than similar headline-grabbing synthetic drugs such as molly, K2 or bath salts. Flakka was almost too good at its job. The chemical attached itself to brain pathways with such ferocity that slight changes in purity or dose resulted in bizarre, sometimes deadly reactions.
A series of videos made flakka famous. In Fort Lauderdale, a security camera captured a man high on flakka trying to kick in the doors of police headquarters, thinking he was being chased by wild dogs. Another impaled his leg on a steel fence as he tried to flee his hallucinations outside the police station. There was the naked man who ran through traffic, known as the Broward Boulevard streaker. Plus, the naked man who got stuck atop an open drawbridge.
Getting naked was a distinguishing feature of flakka. The drug caused a user’s body temperature to soar – 104 and 105 degrees was not uncommon. Some users complained it felt like their body was on fire. The resulting hyperthermia contributed to the 63 flakka-related deaths that Broward County reported by the end of 2015.
Many flakka users suffered hallucinations and agitation. Last summer, county hospitals were admitting, on average, 12 new cases of flakka-related excited delirium every day. Other drugs rarely cause psychosis, experts said. But with flakka, it approached routine.
“We were in an emergency scenario,” said Hall, the epidemiologist.
Police had to change tactics. Two deputies usually responded to a “signal 57” -- a drug call. But flakka users could exhibit adrenaline-fueled, superhuman strength. In Broward County, the sheriff’s office started sending at least four deputies to every flakka call. They treated it like a bank robbery, Tianga said. All hands on deck.
Tasers didn’t always work on flakka users. And talking them down never did. Deputies had to wrestle users to the ground, punching them to gain control, Tianga said. The official protocol was to attack and attack hard. It looked brutal. And in a post-Ferguson, Mo., world, where police use-of-force is scrutinized, Tianga knew the scenes could be interpreted as his deputies going too far.
“We were always one incident away from making national news,” Tianga said.
But, he said, “there was no one to turn to for advice.”
So he started visiting churches on Sundays to explain to people why deputies needed to be so rough. They weren’t taking people to jail, he told them. They were taking them to the hospital. And no one went willingly, even though they were often near death. Tianga started calling the incidents “awful but lawful.”
In March 2015, as flakka use soared, the United Way of Broward County organized the Flakka Action Team. It was the first time the social services agency had formed a group for a particular drug. The task force contained members of local law enforcement, substance abuse counselors and other professionals. The group developed a plan to educate the community, to teach police how to respond and to figure out how to stop flakka production.
“I never knew you could collaborate your efforts with the United Way,” Tianga said.
Heather Davidson, a United Way prevention specialist, said task force members plastered the county with anti-flakka posters with the slogan “Lose your mind. Lose your life.” They held community forums. They educated officials at schools, jails and homeless shelters. They staged anti-flakka marches.
Traditional drug treatment didn’t work with flakka. Chronic users struggled with concentration, one of several lingering side effects. Even filling out paperwork was a challenge. They suffered from paranoia and insomnia. Some were light sensitive, so therapy sessions took place in the dark.
“With crack cocaine, we know how to deal with that,” Davidson said. “What we were seeing with flakka was unique.”
Then the taskforce began pressuring Chinese authorities. It was an open secret that you could place an online order for flakka from a Chinese manufacturer and have it delivered to your door. A kilogram of flakka sold for $1,500 online. That was worth $50,000 on the street. And flakka was just one of hundreds of lab-made substances so new that governments did not have time to identify and ban them.
Hall, at Nova Southeastern University, made sure to bring up the China connection in media interviews last summer. He hammered away at the issue.
Their cause won support from the U.S. Department of Treasury when, in mid-October, the agency imposed Kingpin Act sanctions on one alleged synthetic drug producer in China named Bo Peng. The Drug Enforcement Administration also arrested 151 people in a nation-wide synthetic drug investigation, although most of the focus was on the cannabinoids often called synthetic marijuana.
Then, in November, Florida law enforcement officials, including Tianga and local DEA agents, visited China to directly plead their case to the government there. When they returned, China announced that back on Oct. 1 it had banned 116 different synthetic drugs, including fentanyl and flakka.
The combined efforts turned the tide. Hospitals in Broward County went from seeing 306 flakka cases in October to 187 cases in November. The next month, it was just 54. Drug treatment admissions for flakka plummeted. The last death from flakka was in December. Calls to police about the drug have disappeared, too.
“There’s a drought on,” Davidson of the United Way said. “There’s no more flakka.”
In February, the Flakka Action Team even dropped “flakka” from its name. The task force now focuses on a range of drug problems.
In Tianga’s office, the sheriff’s lieutenant keeps several framed newspaper front pages from last summer detailing flakka’s power. One of the “Lose your mind. Lose your life.” posters that were plastered across the county covers one office wall.
They look like artifacts from a different time.
For Tianga, they are reminders of just how bad it got and how they still beat it.
“I’d like to think we’ve developed a new model for dealing with epidemics,” he said.
And the veteran officer knew the next one was coming.