“Five Dollar Insanity”: Inside The Flakka Drug Epidemic

Published September 24, 2016
Updated March 25, 2020

From what it is to its horrific side effects, here's everything to know about the flakka drug, the synthetic cocktail known as the "zombie drug."

Flakka Drug

Drug Enforcement AdministrationFlakka crystals.

IT STARTED IN JUPITER. On the evening of August 15, 2016, 19-year-old college sophomore Austin Harrouff was dining with his family at a restaurant in the small, coastal city of Jupiter, south Florida.

The trouble began when Harrouff abruptly walked out of the restaurant. His parents soon found him at his mother’s house, attempting to drink cooking oil. They then dragged him back to the restaurant, but it wasn’t long before he walked out again. The consequences would be far worse this time.

After leaving the restaurant at approximately 9 PM, Harrouff walked three-and-a-half miles north toward his father’s house in the neighboring town of Tequesta. At about 10 PM just before reaching the house, Harrouff happened upon the home of middle-aged couple John Stevens and Michelle Mishcon sitting out in their garage.

Austin Harrouff

Martin County Sheriff’s OfficeAustin Harrouff.

When the 911 call came in from the Stevens’ neighbor, Jeff Fisher — who had just gone over to check out the commotion in the darkness and thought he may have been stabbed in the process — all he could really tell the operator at the time was, “There is a girl laying on the ground. He beat her up. I ran over there. I’m bleeding profusely here at the moment.”

By the time the police reached the scene at about 11 PM, they found Stevens and Mishcon stabbed to death and Harrouff aggressively gnawing at the former’s face.

After several minutes of struggle involving multiple officers and their K-9s and tasers, authorities removed Harrouff, grunting and making “animal-like noises,” over Stevens’ now dead body.

Martin County Sheriff William Snyder quickly called the attack “random.”

On the night of the attack, Harrouff himself suggested the underlying factor most quickly assumed to be the root of this “random” attack. “Test me,” Harrouff told officers at the scene. “You won’t find any drugs.”

Authorities took samples of Harrouff’s hair, DNA, and blood, and sent them to the F.B.I. for drug testing. And although those results still have yet to come back (or at least haven’t been made public), both the authorities and media outlet after media outlet immediately suspected that the culprit was indeed a drug called flakka.

What Is Flakka?

Flakka Homeland Security

U.S. Department of Homeland Security

While the growing incidence (particularly in Florida) of terrifying and frighteningly bizarre flakka headlines has perhaps reached its apex with the case of Austin Harrouff, too few seem to understand the drug behind the headlines.

So, what exactly is flakka and why is it making headlines now?

Like “bath salts” — the other grisly crime-inducing drug that saw a sharp rise in popularity a few years ago — the flakka drug is technically known as alpha-pyrrolidinopentiophenone (alpha-PVP), a type of synthetic cathinone.

This dangerous class of drugs gets its kick from manmade compounds chemically related to cathinone, a derivative of the khat shrub. For thousands of years, people have chewed the shrub’s leaves for their psychoactive effects in the plant’s native north Africa and Saudi Arabia.

Khat Chewing

Kyoko Nishimoto/FlickrMan chewing khat in Sana’a, Yemen in 2013.

While it’s both relatively little-known and almost universally illegal in the West, khat has long been and still is openly and legally used in its native region. There, authorities like the World Health Organization estimate that there are more than 10 million khat users who take advantage of the resulting “state of euphoria and elation with feelings of increased alertness and arousal” each day.

The synthetic compounds based on khat are much more recent. First invented in the 1960s, these compounds contort that euphoria and arousal into something far darker. And all of flakka’s devastating delirium and aggression start with a simple white or pink crystal.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, these foul-smelling crystals can be eaten, snorted, injected, or vaporized, the latter of which is the most dangerous method as it sends the drug directly into the bloodstream at unparalleled speeds.

No matter the method used, what’s perhaps most worrisome about the flakka drug is its extraordinarily small price tag: between three and five dollars per dose. This has helped make the flakka drug popular, especially among the young and the poor, and especially after “bath salts” were widely banned in 2011 and many users thus needed a replacement.

But flakka’s effects prove that it’s certainly no mere watered-down version of bath salts.

John Kuroski
John Kuroski is the Managing Editor of All That Is Interesting.