Terrifying tales of how an addictive designer drug was turning users into psychotic, zombie-esque nightmares abounded a few years back when "bath salts" hit the scene.
The U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency banned the bath salts drug in 2011, but recent incidents in Florida involving a similar new designer drug called "flakka" are triggering flashbacks. A new study suggests that flakka, itself banned last year, is indeed just as potent as its panic-inducing predecessor.
Both bath salts and flakka are stimulants with cocaine-like effects. Bath salts quickly became notorious for inducing violent and disturbing behavior, and flakka has so far followed suit. Some reports have even made claims that flakka is somehow more alarming than bath salts. It has been seen thus far in Florida, Texas, and Ohio.
"Oftentimes in media reports you'll see allegations that flakka is stronger or more dangerous or in some way worse than bath salts," says neurobiologist and senior author Michael Taffe of The Scripps Research Institute in an interview. "Our study shows pretty clearly that's not true."
Taffe and his colleagues compared the two drugs using a classic experimental setup with rats. They kept the rats in cages where they could administer a dose of flakka to themselves by pressing a lever. But after every time they used the drug, the amount of work that they would have to do to get their fix increased. So if the rat had to press the lever once to get to the flakka the first time, it might have to press it twice the next time.
This allowed the researchers to gauge the drugs' abuse potential. Like people, rats will go to greater lengths for more potent drugs. But the results of the study showed that in terms of potency, bath salts and flakka "are almost equivalent," says Taffe.
Flakka comes in crystalline rock form and can be swallowed, snorted, injected, or used in an e-cigarette and vaped, Dr. Robert Glatter noted in his medical blog. Its effects can last 3-4 hours or for several days. The drug is considered both physically and psychologically addictive. It can trigger psychotic behavior and may cause a high body temperature and kidney damage.
Flakka may not be more problematic in and of itself, but its emergence does point to a major issue in the regulation of designer drugs. The chemical structure of flakka is very similar to that of bath salts, highlighting the fact that it is possible to create "new" drugs that are different enough to evade DEA regulation but still produce many of the same effects as drugs that are banned.
"We're in an era where there's an endless set of these bath salt-related compounds," Taffe says. "As soon as the DEA gets one on the schedule, it seems, another one emerges."
The DEA puts drugs into one of five categories, or schedules, depending upon the drug's acceptable medical use and its abuse or dependency potential. Cough medicine with coedine and the antidiarrheal Lomotil are classed as Schedule 5 drugs, the least problematic category with limited quantities of certain narcotics. Flakka, however, a synthetic stimulant, is classified as a Schedule 1 drug, alongside LSD and ecstasy, which are both considered Schedule 1 drugs. Bath salts of the cathinone class are also Schedule 1 and were banned in 2011.
One of the goals of Taffe's research team is to "generate more generalizable principles about different structural modifications and what that might mean for health," he says, in order to learn more about the pattern of use, addiction liability, and user profile of new compounds. Such efforts could help prevent the DEA from forever lagging one step behind the designers of drugs like flakka.
The study was published in the journal Psychopharmacology.