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Flakka causing headaches for U.S. law enforcement

Like a rite of spring, it arrives from China, through the mail, just in time for the summer concert season and almost always with a marketing strategy geared toward teens and 20-year-olds.

The names may change – the latest reincarnation is flakka – but the promise of instant joy, exuberance and intimacy, and the assurance that it’s pure and safe, are always part of the sales pitch.

Unlike Ecstasy, the father of all designer party drugs, this latest batch of synthetic stimulants, like Molly and some of the others that came before it, is often made up of dangerous additives unknown to the user.

Even worse, perhaps, the people selling flakka and Molly - you buy it online and it comes right to your door - are getting away with it. The ever-changing nature of the drug’s ingredients has proven frustrating for law enforcement eager to prosecute dealers and health officials trying to track victims.

“It’s out there," said Kevin Ryan, a supervisory special agent with Homeland Security Investigations in Buffalo. “The hierarchy of law enforcement can’t count it but road patrol officers will tell you it’s out there.”

Popularized by singers like Miley Cyrus and Kanye West, Molly is a staple of the outdoor concert and electronic music scene, but no one knows for sure how prevalent it is in Buffalo.

Even more important, no one knows how many young people have been hospitalized or died of flakka and Molly overdoses. Ryan says there have been a few confirmed cases of fatal overdoses, incuding a teenage girl from Buffalo last year, and other suspicious deaths.

For people on the front lines, police and emergency room nurses and doctors, it’s difficult to identify drugs like flakka. And a lot of that difficulty is because of China’s desire to stay one step ahead of the laws here, and its manufacturers’ practice of constantly altering the drug’s make-up.

“With a drug like this, you can’t tell what it is," said Kimberly Walitzer, deputy director of the University at Buffalo Research Institute on Addictions.

Flakka, also known as gravel and insanity, is made from the chemical alpha-PVP and is a synthetic cousin to bath salts. First discovered in southern Florida, the self-described party drug can be swallowed, snorted, injected or smoked in an e-cigarette.

Like Molly, which made its debut here three years ago, flakka is often marketed as a pure, safe and fun version of Ecstasy.

“In fact, it’s not pure, it’s not safe and it’s certainly not fun," said Dr. Gail Burstein, Erie County’s health commissioner.

Burstein says the constantly-changing nature of Molly and flakka have made it difficult for her office, and other health professionals, to track its use and impact here. No one thinks it is as widespread or dangerous as the heroin and fentanyl epidemic that’s killing dozens of people across the region. But there is an acknowledgement that flakka and Molly are a serious health risk, especially among teens.

The University at Buffalo’s addictions institute has been tracking Molly for years and in 2013 warned the public about its false reputation as a pure, safe party drug. UB noted that Molly often contains dangerous additives such as bath salts, cocaine and heroin.

“There’s the misconception that ‘pure’ means ‘safe,’" Walitzer said. “And it’s not a safe drug."

Like flakka, Molly is a stimulant linked to feelings of euphoria, enhanced energy and awareness and affection.

It also can cause rapid heart rate, convulsions, agitation and has been connected to fatal overdoses dating back as far the now infamous Electric Zoo concert in New York City. A city medical examiner ruled that two attendees of that 2013 concert died because of Molly.

“With Molly, there’s no second chances," said Assemblyman Michael P. Kearns, D-Buffalo. Kearns, who has a young daughter, thinks the impact of flakka and Molly has been vastly underreported and says its victims are typically teens from the suburbs and rural parts of the county.

He also thinks New York has been slow to respond and says the state doesn’t currently have a law to prosecute synthetic drug dealers. He and state Sen. Robert Ortt, a North Tonawanda Republican, have introduced a bill that would make the possession or sale of certain synthetic drugs a crime under the state penal law.

“In the old days, you had chemical structures that were illegal," Kearns said of the bill’s significance. “Now that drugs are made synthetically, that’s often impossible.”

Like Kearns and Ortt, Sen. Charles E. Schumer thinks the answer is better law enforcement. During a recent visit to Batavia High School, home to four students who were hospitalized after experimenting with a synthetic drug, Schumer called on the Drug Enforcement Administration to speed up its process for adding new synthetic drug combinations to its list of controlled substances.

He also has sponsored a bill that would make it illegal to import certain synthetic analogues.

The goal, Schumer said in Batavia, is to have a federal law that keeps pace with the ever-changing nature of the drugs coming from China.

Prosecutors are not shy about expressing their frustration with flakka and Molly and all the legal obstacles they throw at the feet of investigators.

They’re quick to note that, unlike a heroin or cocaine dealer, the suspect caught selling flakka will have a much easier defense because of China’s efforts to purposely avoid manufacturing drugs that are illegal in the U.S.

The Chinese do that, they say, by having their chemistry labs produce more than one analogue of a drug. As soon as that analogue is banned in the United States, another analogue is set for production and distribution.

“The producers in China are working feverishly to avoid our efforts at detection," said U.S. Attorney William J. Hochul Jr.

Hochul says his office has seen a steady increase in synthetic drug prosecutions the past three years and they run the gamut from synthetic marijuana to bath salts and flakka. And yet, he thinks the problem is still too big to be considered under control.

He pointed to a Rochester investigation into a single dealer that, over time, grew into more than 50 separate investigations across the country.

“There’s no question it’s a massive problem," Hochul said.

Over the past year, his office has filed charges against nine people, most recently a Livingston County man accused of possessing 6.6 pounds of flakka. Jack J. Jett, 41, is charged with importing and distributing the drug.

The feds have also tried other strategies in combating Molly and flakka, including the seizure of websites marketing the drugs and cutting off the avenues for money to reach to China. None of them have stopped the flow of drugs into Western New York.