Legal highs: From bath salts to flakka

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Originally published March 2016

I hover a burnt piece of aluminum foil over a lit candle, vapourizing the white powder sitting on top of it into a sticky, brown oil. I put the foil over the flame again, position my mouth over it, and inhale the streaming smoke. I look down at my ribcage and watch my heart vibrate like a jackhammer. My entire family has gathered outside my bedroom and are whispering their intent to bust down my door. I hear the stomping boots of a SWAT team marching towards my bedroom window, and the buzz of helicopters swarming my rooftop. Blue and red lights flash against my walls. I’ve been up for 150 hours without a second of sleep, and I feel like my heart is going to explode with anxiety.

But my parents were not actually outside my door, and there was no SWAT team or helicopters surrounding my house. These delusions were the result of visual and audio hallucinations induced by consuming Methylenedioxypyrovalerone (MDPV), also known as “bath salts.” MDPV is a synthetic stimulant that produces intense euphoria and stimulation, but also has a myriad of negative effects, including, but not limited to, muscle tension, gastrointestinal disturbance, involuntary body movements, extreme paranoia, hallucinations, and psychotic behaviour. Never in my wildest, saddest dreams had I thought I would become addicted to such a monster of a drug.

I began using drugs at 15 to cope with severe depression. I started out smoking cigarettes; graduated to smoking marijuana and drinking alcohol within a few months; and ended up using psychedelics such as LSD and mushrooms, and stimulants such as ecstasy and cocaine, within a year. By the time I was 17, I entered a free public treatment centre for addiction, completed a one month program, and relapsed within days of being released. This is a cycle that continued for years. I went from treatment centres to detox centres to psychiatry wards.

By the time I was 20, my life was at a crossroads. I had dropped out of high school, and relapsed after four different recovery attempts, dwindling my family’s hope for me to live a normal life. Each day was dominated by using and finding drugs. My physical and mental state deteriorated to the point where it was impossible for me to hold down a job. I stole incessantly from family and friends until eventually there was nothing left to steal and no one left to scam, which meant there was no way to support my addiction without resorting to more serious crimes or finding a cheaper alternative to the drugs I was using.

I read an online discussion board where people were discussing how to order legal drugs from China. I researched the best legal stimulant available, and the answer seemed to be MDPV. I found an online vendor and ordered seven grams for $100, which included seven-day express shipping from China. Not only was MDPV a fraction of the price of street stimulants such as cocaine and methamphetamine, but it was much stronger, and technically legal.

After much press coverage of the paranoiac dangers of the super-charged stimulant, MDPV became illegal in the US in 2011 and Canada in 2012, and once that happened, chemists in China were busy cooking up new, legal alternatives. They came up with a closely related chemical compound called alpha-PVP, also known as “flakka.” I was scared of the legal consequences of continuing to order MDPV through the mail, so I switched to alpha-PVP, a drug that authorities hadn’t yet regulated. When I first tried alpha-PVP, I was surprised by its strength, as it was even stronger than MDPV—a drug that the National Science Foundation determined was 10 times stronger than cocaine.

A capsule of alpha-PVP from the Broward Sherrif’s Office. Photo via Twitter.
A capsule of alpha-PVP from the Broward Sherrif’s Office. Photo via Twitter.

Alpha-PVP is so potent that using it almost always put me into suicidal states of psychosis, but I still couldn’t stop using it despite rarely enjoying the experience. As an addict, I was willing to use whatever drug I could get my hands on, and alpha-PVP was easily available. The drug tore through Florida in 2015, bearing headlines with chilling proclamations: “The dangerous new drug flakka is turning people into naked, paranoid lunatics” (Associated Press) and “‘Devil’s Drug:’ Flakka is Driving Florida Insane” (NBC News). A medical examiner in Broward County, Florida had reportedly seen 63 alpha-PVP-related deaths between September 2014 and November 2015.

I attended an addiction treatment centre for five months, starting in September 2013. This was my third stay in a treatment centre, and it was the one I finally found success with. I have remained sober to this date, and I cringe every time I read the frequent and frightening drug-related headlines. I partly attribute my want and initial ability to stay sober to not ever wanting to relive the terrifying bouts of psychosis I experienced on MDPV and alpha-PVP. But I know that my kind of heavy experiences are not necessary for an addict to realize the harm that addiction is inflicting on their life and reach out for help.

In October, China restricted exportation of alpha-PVP and 115 other synthetic drugs. Broward County hasn’t seen an alpha-PVP-related death since December. Representatives from Coral Springs, Fort Lauderdale, the US Department of Justice, and the DEA travelled to Bejing and met with the US ambassador to China, Chinese police, and government officials to discuss the scourge of deaths attributed to Chinese manufactured drugs, and to voice their support of the restrictions.

“Our answer was not to arrest our way out of the problem,” says Lt. Ozzy Tianga of the Broward Sheriff’s Office, “but to educate the community, show compassion to users, and make flakka enforcement of dealers priority number one.”

Educating the community and showing compassion to drug users is imperative. According to the National Institute of Drug Abuse, “…addiction is a complex disease, and quitting takes more than good intentions or a strong will.” In the same way a cancer patient doesn’t choose to have cancer, an addict doesn’t choose to become an addict. But will the tinkering of laws have a positive long-term effect, or will there soon be a new batch of Chinese-manufactured drugs hitting the streets? A quick Google search can find the answer to be the latter.

A new type of drug has started taking its toll on western Canada, including Victoria and Nanaimo. Fentanyl is a synthetic opiate analgesic—a prescription painkiller that is 50 times stronger than morphine—that causes sedation and relaxation, the opposite effects of alpha-PVP and MDPV. Between December 20 and 26, eight people died in Victoria of suspected fentanyl-related overdoses. Nanaimo RCMP and Island Health released a statement in January urging drug users to use extreme caution and provided a list of precautions, such as avoiding using alone and having an overdose plan. Fentanyl is especially dangerous because of its high potency at low doses.

People who die from using fentanyl often believe they are taking a different drug, such as heroin or methamphetamine, and accidentally overdose. The rise of the use of fentanyl coincided with when the prescription drug OxyContin (an epidemic in its own right) changed to a harder-to-abuse formula. The Centres for Disease Control and Prevention is now recommending US physicians limit opioid prescriptions in an attempt to combat opiate addiction.

legal highs 2In January, Health Canada confirmed that a new synthetic opiate, W-18, had been found in fake OxyContin pills in Calgary. W-18 is reportedly 100 times stronger than fentanyl, and 10 thousand times stronger than morphine. W-18 is widely available online from labs in China and is not yet regulated under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act in Canada. So far, there is no proof that W-18 has been widely circulated on the streets, but as authorities start to clamp down on fentanyl, W-18 may become the next crisis. The fact is that whenever authorities ban a new drug or attempt to limit its availability, newer drugs get created which are often stronger and deadlier than their predecessors. Drugs will always find a way to seep into our streets because addiction is a disease, and there will always be a sizable portion of our population seeking them.

In 2001, Portugal decriminalized all drugs. If someone is found in the possession of less than a 10-day supply of anything from methamphetamine to marijuana, the person either gets sent to treatment, pays a small fine, or gets off penalty-free. Since the mass decriminalization, drug use has declined dramatically among 15 to 24-year-olds, and the size of the population who have tried a previously-illicit drug has steadily declined. The number of drug-induced deaths has decreased from 78 in 2001 to 10 in 2011.

The never-ending cycle of criminalizing drugs is not working, and in the long-run is causing more harm than good.  I was blessed with the opportunity to attend Edgewood, a private, treatment centre that cost in excess of $40K. I understand that going to a place like Edgewood is a privilege that is not afforded by most people, but I believe that quality treatment centres should be available to anybody who needs them. Is the answer to the drug crisis increasing the amount of money spent on treatment? Or is it decriminalization? It’s most likely a combination of both. Portugal had a moment of clarity when they realized that their approach wasn’t working, and they became willing to take a risk that we now know is paying off tremendously. It’s time for Canada and the US to consider doing the same.