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From Bath Salts to Flakka: Searching for Designer Drugs

The new and unfamiliar often elicits fear of the unknown. But when the new and unfamiliar is a drug – and when this drug is attributed to episodes of extreme paranoia, acts of superhuman strength, and reports of “zombie-cannibalism” – it can result in an all-out, media-frenzied panic.

Synthetic stimulants like bath salts and their newer derivative, flakka, have earned a reputation for violent, erratic behaviors – and their rise has illustrated a growing concern over the practices of synthetic drug manufacturers. We mapped the search prevalence of both bath salts and flakka over time to explore the relationship between these two substances and to see how interest correlated with media coverage.

The Difference Between Bath Salts and Flakka

Although news outlets have dubbed flakka “more dangerous than bath salts,” the two drugs share a number of similarities. The active ingredient in both is a chemical similar to cathinone, which is a naturally-occurring stimulant substance found in a shrub called khat. People in East Africa and the Arabian Peninsula have chewed the leaves of khat for centuries to feel its amphetamine-like effects. But unlike the botanical alkaloid found in the khat plant, the stimulant found in bath salts and flakka is man-made. For the most part, both drugs are synthesized in China and shipped in bulk overseas.

The term “bath salts” doesn’t always refer to a specific chemical; rather, it serves as an umbrella term for an often difficult to predict, heterogeneous mixture of synthetic cathinones and other chemical additives that happen to be sold under the name at that point in time. However, the drug usually contains one of three stimulant substances: mephedrone, methylone, or MDPV.

When the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) permanently banned mephedrone and MDPV in July 2012 and methylone in April 2013, the manufacturers of these drugs stayed in the game by slightly altering the structure of their chemical formulas. They created a new but similar synthetic substance that, at that point, was technically legal: alpha-PVP, more commonly known as flakka – Spanish slang for skinny woman (“la flaca”).

Bath Salts’ Reign: Search Prevalence From 2010–Present

Multiple incidents involving bath salts were so bizarre that they got the attention of the media, the Internet, and the DEA. According to spikes in search prevalence, interest in bath salts rose and fell as news coverage of this series of dramatic incidents played out: the woman from Panama City Beach who allegedly swung a machete at her mother, the man in West Virginia who was found to have murdered a pygmy goat, and the Florida man who reportedly bit a police car and caused $600 worth of damage to the car’s paint job. Some peaks correlated with the release of viral videos such as “Effects of Bath Salts,” but interest also rose in October 2011 when the DEA temporarily banned all three of bath salts’ common ingredients – MDPV, mephedrone, and methylone.

More than any of the other reports, an incident at the end of May 2012 seemed to really seize the country’s undivided attention: A man from Miami brutally attacked a homeless man under a highway overpass, chewing and tearing off half of the man’s face. He was subsequently shot and killed by the responding police officer. Video footage of the incident quickly made its way around the Internet. Immediately, news outlets speculated that bath salts were the cause of his behavior, leading to cries of an impending bath salts-fueled “zombie apocalypse.”

Even though the toxicology report revealed that the only drug detected in the man’s body was marijuana, the bath salts craze had begun, and the association between the synthetic drug and cannibalism was already set. A month later, the DEA was able to permanently ban both MDPV and mephedrone by defining them as Schedule I controlled substances; nearly a year after that, methylone followed suit.

While gruesome tales of drug-fueled violence will periodically make headlines, our nation contends with the pervasive, often unexpected effects of substance abuse on a daily basis. Though potentially less bizarre than what’s covered in the news, many of the common mental, behavioral and medical health effects of drug use develop more subtly, but are still quite capable of devastating lives in the long run. Don’t let a stimulant addiction – synthetic or otherwise – come between you and a healthy, productive life. Call  to speak confidentially about substance abuse treatment options today.

Flakka’s Rise: Search Prevalence in 2015

The banning of MDPV, mephedrone, and methylone set the stage for flakka’s gradual ascent. As measured by search volume – and, similar to the media frenzy surrounding bath salts – flakka’s widespread introduction to general public consciousness began, and grew to correspond, with a series of bizarre incidents that took place in Florida beginning in March 2015 – which is interesting, as the DEA temporarily banned alpha-PVP in January 2014.

First, a man tried to kick down the front door of the Fort Lauderdale Police Station; then, another man – attempting to break into the same police station – impaled himself on the security gate. Then came the paranoid Fort Lauderdale streaker and the accompanying video footage, correlating with the first major rise in interest, followed by a man in Melbourne who allegedly proclaimed himself the god Thor and had sexual relations with a tree.

What separates flakka’s rise from the rise of bath salts, however, seems to be the interest generated by viral videos. No major incidents correlate with its spikes in search prevalence after April, but several videos documenting its effects – a man pushing himself in circles on the ground, a man hiding behind a dumpster, a woman rolling around in the middle of a highway, and a woman walking erratically on the side of a road – steadily gained hundreds of thousands of views. The last video was originally uploaded on Facebook, where it was viewed by almost 4 million people and reposted by multiple media outlets in late May. The videos perhaps capture the fear of flakka more acutely than the news stories. It’s one thing to read a story about an isolated, bizarre incident; it’s another to watch someone’s erratic behavior for yourself.

The use of bath salts, flakka and many other types of substances can give rise to remarkable, if fleeting, displays of profound mental illness – including florid hallucinations and troubling delusions. In the long-term, the psychological consequences of drug abuse can even plague an individual long after the drug has been stopped. Many addiction rehabilitation programs are equipped to handle dual diagnosis situations – that is, they will address the issues of both a substance use disorder and a mental health condition simultaneously. If you’re worried that your substance abuse, or that of someone close to you may have given rise to, or worsened an existing mental health issue, help is available. Call  to speak with a treatment support advisor about effective dual diagnosis treatment today.

Bath Salts Search Prevalence, by State (2010–Present)

West Virginia has the highest search prevalence for bath salts in the country. It’s home to both the pygmy goat incident and the so-called largest bath salts ring in the U.S.; authorities broke up the operation in 2014. Maine follows with a similar amount of interest in bath salts. Back in 2011, the state had several newsworthy incidents concerning individuals high on the synthetic substance, and authorities even arrested a bath salts trafficker this past April.

In D.C., a man died after injecting bath salts into his system. Bath salts made the news in Ohio after a man got high and shot his mother and girlfriend. In Arizona, bath salts may have contributed to a nude carjacking incident. While search prevalence is highest in these five states, interest is fairly evenly spread throughout the country: The East Coast has the highest saturation, followed by the South and West Coast. Search prevalence in the Midwest is much lower than in other regions.

Flakka Search Prevalence, by State (2010–Present)

Flakka and Florida seem inseparable. Nearly every major news story concerning the synthetic substance has come from the Sunshine State, and authorities recently reported that flakka has dethroned cocaine in terms of drug seizures. Florida’s long coastline and many airports have historically made it a popular entryway for cocaine, heroin, and marijuana; authorities have now added flakka to that list.

Georgia, Texas, New York, and California follow Florida in search prevalence. Flakka has made an appearance in Valdosta, GA; in North Texas; in Western New York; and in Southern California. It’s up in the air whether or not flakka’s geographical spread, search volume, or prevalence of use will reach bath salts-level proportions, but interest has spread outside of Florida, which could be a start to a troubling trend.


Levels of media coverage and search interest for both bath salts and flakka closely parallel each other. It’s perhaps unsurprising, since both bare a striking chemical resemblance to each other – the result of analogous molecular evolution from the same precursor substances. While the strange, erratic crimes associated with use of these drugs could be accounted for by other factors – including pre-existing mental illness and/or polydrug use – and while the media coverage surrounding them could be overhyped, the fact is that these chemicals pose a very real threat to both individuals and communities alike.

Presently, manufacturers are able to skirt existing drug laws via their molecular tinkering efforts to create new synthetic drugs. As a result, drug enforcement agencies are forced to play catch-up – maintaining a vigilant watch for a seemingly endless supply of unregulated, temporarily legal and potentially lethal substances. Though the availability, perceived legality and low prices of synthetic drugs like bath salts and flakka might initially prove attractive to some users, these extreme (and sometimes macabre) examples of adverse reactions should hopefully serve as a strong deterrent to future use.

Sadly, in many cases, the pull of substance abuse is strong enough to override better judgment – even when the downsides to continued use are made startlingly obvious. If you or a loved one is struggling to overcome compulsive drug use, rehabilitation programs can provide much needed assistance. Visit, or call  today to speak with a caring treatment support specialist about recovery from bath salts, flakka or any abused substance.

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