Apparent rise and fall of S.Fla's flakka problem

Posted at 11:50 PM, Feb 23, 2016
and last updated 2016-02-24 11:27:20-05

South Florida's flakka problem had police stunned at the speed it was spreading on the streets.  From the alarming headlines splashed across front pages to the zombie-like scenes playing out on our streets and into the ears of 911 dispatchers.

But now, some law enforcement agencies in Broward and Palm Beach counties say they've largely taken the drug out.

Broward County Sheriff's Office deputies said they have never seen the rise and fall of such a dangerous drug so quickly.

At the peak of the problem, hospitals were overwhelmed with a dozen flakka-related admissions a day. Now, they are seeing less than two.  The medical examiner's office there says they saw nine flakka-related deaths in 2014, 54 in 2015, and zero so far in 2016. 

"Flakka had no boundaries. It was everywhere," said Lt. Ozzy Tianga with the Broward County Sheriff's Office.

Broward County was the epicenter of the so called epidemic. Now, Lt. Tianga talks about it in the past tense. He said it appears flakka is in the rear-view mirror.

"To see an epidemic rise and fall in a year’s time I think is unheard of," he said. "(It's been) a steep and steady decline. Significant, very significant."

Those who've used the drug in the past also tell us it has disappeared.

"It's nowhere to be found around here," said Joanne Evans. "Anybody that says they got it is just a liar."

She said it used to be on every street corner. Broc McKinnis, a former flakka user, agreed. "I used to do a lot of flakka," he said. "It's nowhere on the streets. Ever since it disappeared, I stopped looking for it."

Lt. Tianga was part of a team that went to China to push the government there to ban the export of 116 chemicals.

"Ever since the substance was banned in China, where it was manufactured, we've seen an immediate and drastic decrease," he said. "Flakka is now out of stock."

Lt. Tianga also said they focused on education, compassion towards addicts and working with the community.  Plus, they practiced zero tolerance wanting to send a message to the "individual selling the poison."

At the height of the problem in Broward County, church goers put anti-flakka messages on a chain link fence in one of the worst areas.  One read: "Say no to flakka."  But now it reads, "Jesus saves."  Some former users told us the fact it is hard to find has saved their lives.

"I'm glad it's gone. Everybody's glad it's gone," said McKinnis, who recalled smoking the drug for 13 days straight on no sleep. "It messed up a lot of lives."

Evans said it was like super crack, making her fly around. "Even if it comes around, I don't want to try it," she said. "Whoever made it, they should get the death sentence because it made a lot of people bad."

The paranoia-inducing problem traveled north up I-95 to Palm Beach County and beyond.

"This was a South Florida problem," said West Palm Beach Police Capt. Brian Kapper.

West Palm Beach police said it appears flakka has somewhat dried up here as well. In October 2015, they said they seized nearly 50 grams from the streets. In December, police took just a fraction of that.

"The quick disappearance of the quantity of flakka from the area has surprised me more than anything," he said.  Also adding media exposure of the way people act on the dangerous drug, new laws in China, and working together as law enforcement all helped crack down on the drug.

Now investigators worry flakka users are turning to heroin instead.  West Palm Beach police planned to address the alarming rate of deaths from heroin use this week.

"I don't know that heroin ever really disappeared," said Lt. Tianga. "I think it just took a backseat to flakka, and now heroin is in the driver's seat again."

"The violence with the Flakka isn't there," said Capt. Kapper. "Heroin...the real danger there is people are dying because of it."

Those in the narcotics world said they're keeping their eye on the road ahead, not looking back.  Saying until flakka is completely gone, they're not finished. And they're looking for the next trend.

"The key is that we're smart enough to identify it and combat it right away now," said Lt. Tianga.

The medical examiner's office in Broward and researchers at the University of Miami had planned to do a study on the effects of flakka on the brain. They wanted to ask family members of victims to donate their brains. Now, they said those plans are on hold.