Flakka on the Gold Coast and Schoolies should be scared – or should they?

In an unfortunate event in October, a number of people fell ill and one person died on the Gold Coast after taking what they thought was Ecstasy. The media were quick to report that the drug they had consumed was “Flakka”. Why were the media so quick to report that the drug was “Flakka” given that there was no evidence to suggest this to be the case and there has not been any reports of Flakka-related incidents in Australia? And more importantly, what is Flakka?

 Source: 7 News

In the US products were being legally sold as “bathsalts” that were found to contain drugs such as MDPV and Mephedrone. Once these drugs were banned, new products emerged in their place that were called “Flakka”. Some of these new products were found to contain the drug alpha-PVP. There have been numerous stories in the US, particularly in Florida, regarding people experiencing harm from Flakka. Some stories even claimed that Falkka turned people into Zombies!

And these claims were perpetuated in Australia with stories like “Another eight hit by ‘zombie’ drug” published in the Courier Mail. Perhaps somebody on the frontline had heard about these stories and assumed that this was the drug that was in the Ecstasy that was the cause of the Gold Coast incident? Fortunately one journalist, Anthony Colangelo, put on his critical thinking hat on and questioned these claims in a story entitled: ‘Zombie’ drug blamed for overdoses might not be cause. In Mr Colangelo’s story, he interviews several experts that note that the symptoms that people were experiencing were not consistent with alpha-PVP, and that we need not worry about a Flakka Zombie apocalypse.

Indeed, it later emerged that the drugs on the Gold Coast actually contained MDMA and an NBOMe drug. However, given the timing of these event, numerous stories began to emerge on multiple news sites indicating that this would be the worst year for overdoses for schoolies heading for the Gold Coast, continuing to talk about “Flakka”. One story was by George Roberts on the ABC news website called: N Bomb, NPS’s among hundreds of deadly new ‘party drugs on Australian market for summer, experts warn. However, this story contained two key pieces of misinformation. First, it claimed that alpha-PVP (or “Flakka”) was responsible for a case in the US where a man was found eating the face off a homeless man; however, it was actually bath salts (or MDPV) that were linked to this case. Though, perhaps more importantly, later toxicological data showed that the man responsible had no drugs in his system other than THC, the active ingredient in Cannabis. He did however have a serious mental illness. Despite this, the story continues to be perpetuated in the media, and has now been associated in George Roberts’ article with Flakka!

George Roberts’ story also claimed that drug checking at festivals was not going to be an effective method of identifying these new drugs. This information was provided by an expert source with questionable expertise, Mr Andrew Leibie. Mr Leibie runs a company that provides commercial drug testing and could have a vested interest in creating moral panic since more concerned people means more business. This is not the first time that Mr Leibie has been used an expert in a story reported on by AOD Media Watch. When questioned about the veracity of his story, the journalist stated via twitter “both valid sides of the debate I suppose. We have had the other side regularly too”, to which Dr David Caldicott replied “Science isn’t usually a 2 sided debate. More often it is ‘fact’ vs. ‘fear / fiction”.

In an unusual turn of events, it was actually the police that ended up dousing the flames of moral panic regarding schoolies, with a piece published in The Australian stating entitled “Schoolies drug concerns no worse than past”, in which Superintendent Craig Hanlon stated ”I don’t know where these reports are coming from but I can tell you there’s no evidence we know that there’s going to be more drugs than any other time”. He went on to say that the Gold Coast overdoses had “nothing to do with the school leavers event coming up. It was a separate incident that’s being dealt with.

Dr Stephen Bright, Adjunct Research Fellow at Curtin University’s National Drug Research Institute

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