Flakka 'Zombie' Stories Are Nonsense, Says NYU Professor

By McCarton Ackerman 11/30/16

"Exaggerating dangerous effects usually leads to increased stigma toward those who use or happen to be dependent on the drug."

Flakka 'Zombie' Stories Are Nonsense, Says NYU Professor
Photo via DEA

Numerous media reports have tied the synthetic drug flakka to “zombie-like” behavior including cannibalism, but an NYU professor says that any reports suggesting this are no more than tabloid fodder.

Professor Joseph Palamar of NYU’s Langone Medical Center collected hair samples from dozens of dance festival and nightclub attendees last year. Although self-reported ecstasy users joked to him that they would never take flakka—otherwise known as bath salts—because they “are not zombies or cannibals,” he found that four out of 10 participants tested positive for at least one compound commonly found in flakka.

Palamar said that while media reports of flakka users engaging in cannibalistic behavior might hinder use of the drug, the short-term benefits don’t outweigh the long-term damage of stigmatizing these users.

“’Scary’ should be based on truthful information about potentially harmful drugs. If we continue to exaggerate adverse effects, then this can work against our prevention efforts in two ways,” he explained in an op-ed for The Conversation. “First, potential users—especially experienced drug users—may disregard our warnings. Second, exaggerating dangerous effects usually leads to increased stigma toward those who use or happen to be dependent on the drug. This usually leads only to further ostracization and a lower likelihood of seeking treatment.”

Two of the most recent high-profile stories involving alleged flakka users were ultimately proven to be duds after toxicology reports found no traces of the drug in their system.

In August, it took several police officers and drug dogs to detain 19-year-old Austin Harrouff after he killed a Florida couple and reportedly ate the face of his male victim. But despite reports that he was high on flakka at the time of the attack, the Palm Beach Post reported last week that FBI test results showed no illicit drugs in his system.

His father, Wade, told Dr. Phil in a televised interview in September that Austin suffers from schizophrenia and that mental illness, not drugs, was responsible for the murders.

In 2012, fellow Floridian Rudy Eugene was fatally shot by police after he attacked Ronald Poppo under a bridge and began chewing his face. Major media outlets reported that Eugene was under the influence of bath salts, but toxicology reports only showed traces of marijuana in his system. Although Poppo survived, he now lives in a long-term care facility after the attack left him blind and permanently disfigured.

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McCarton Ackerman is a freelance writer and editor living in Portland, Oregon. He has been a contributor for The Fix since October 2011, writing on a wide range of topics ranging from medical marijuana in Colorado to the world's sexiest drug smugglers. Follow him on Linkedin and Twitter.