Jul 15, 2018 | Updated: 09:54 AM EDT

Flakka Freak-Outs Erupt in the Sunshine State as a Dangerous New Drug Emerges

May 27, 2015 04:22 PM EDT

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As if a glut of theme parks were not enough to keep folks in Florida amused, now many of them are turning to a dangerous new drug that produces a high equivalent to cocaine, but is far more deadly.

Flakka, commonly called "gravel" because of its similar appearance to aquarium gravel, is a synthetic drug related to "bath salts," which were banned in 2012. The chemicals in flakka bind to molecules on the surface of neurons whose normal function is to keep the mood-regulating neurotransmitters, dopamine and serotonin, in check. With normal regulation blocked, the brain becomes flooded with the neurotransmitters. Users have reported experiencing incredible feelings of strength, likened to that of the Incredible Hulk.

And many of these "Hulking" tales are originating in Florida, especially in the southern part of the state. From tearing through hurricane shutters to wild rants through South Florida streets, the rapid rise of cases has local health officials stymied. Hospitalization rates in Broward County are now at three to four per day, even more on weekends.

The real concern centers on the drug's deadly effects. A typical flakka high lasts from one to several hours, but the neurological effects can be permanent, for it can destroy the very neurons on which it acts. Flakka chemicals are more long-lasting than regular bath salts and can do permanent damage to the kidneys. But the biggest danger is in overdosing.

"It's so difficult to control the exact dose [of flakka]," said Jim Hall, a drug abuse epidemiologist at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. "Just a little bit of difference in how much is consumed can be the difference between getting high and dying. It's that critical."

Just a small overdose brings on a rash of symptoms, from violent behavior, spikes in body temperature (105 degrees and higher) and paranoia. Combined with the potential neurological and physiological damage to the body, flakka poses severe risks to its users. And unfortunately, it's cheap and easy to obtain.

Like many synthetic drugs, the majority of flakka comes from China where it is sold on the Internet or through dealers. A typical dose runs between $3 and $5, making it a far cheaper high than cocaine.

And the drug is now spreading, with cases reported in Alabama and Mississippi and even as far north as New Jersey.

The Drug Enforcement Administration has placed a temporary ban on flakka, but makers of the drug can easily detour the ban by simply labeling it "not for human consumption." In the meantime, health officials remain on high alert as cases of flakka overdose continue to rise.

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