Aberrant violence stemming from “Designer Drug” use.

This week in Miami, Florida a 19-year-old college student was arrested in connection with a gruesome double murder that sounds like a bad horror movie. Austin Harrouff, the son of a Jupiter, Florida dentist, stabbed and killed Michelle Mischon, 53, and John Stevens, 59. Arriving on scene, officers found Harrouff on top of Mr. Stevens lifeless body biting chunks of flesh out of his face. He was also grunting and making animal like noises. Authorities called the bizarre attack “random and unprovoked” noting that there was no known connection between Harrouff and the victims.

What could make a 19-year-old young man from a privileged background leading an apparently charmed life go this far off course? The answer may be designer drugs. Designer drugs are chemically designed substances that are meant to have the same effect as most conventional controlled substances while avoiding classification as illegal as well as positive identification in testing.

Two designer drugs that have come under scrutiny for their effects on users are two types of synthetic cathinone, commonly referred to “bath salts” and the more potent “Flakka”. Health officials have named these types of drugs “new psychoactive substances” (NPS). Many take bath salts and Flakka as a cheaper, more accessible alternative to cocaine and methamphetamine. Bath salts and Flakka are synthetically engineered to mimic Khat. Khat is a plant found in Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. Its leaves are sometimes chewed providing a stimulant effect. The synthetic drugs are, however, much stronger and more unpredictable than Khat, and are highly addictive.

The effect of the synthetic drugs is alarming. Flakka, suspected to have been taken by Harrouff is particularly damaging. Psychologically, it causes hallucination and extreme aggressive, often violent, behavior. This has prompted some to call it a “Zombie” drug. While high on Flakka users will exert themselves to a degree that their bodies wouldn’t otherwise be capable of, resulting in superhuman strength. Flakka causes users to enter a state of excited delirium. In this state the person’s core temperature rises to unsafe levels, a conditions called hyperthermia. This can result in severe dehydration leading to renal failure and death.

Characteristically, Harrouff was almost impossible to subdue. Police shot him with a stun gun with little to no effect. Eventually he was controlled by multiple officers and several police dogs. His mother had expressed concern regarding his behavior leading up to the killings. She had reported to the police that he was acting different, calling himself “immortal”. She told police that she did not consider him a risk to himself or others.

In Texas, Flakka is not a controlled substance and therefore it’s not against Texas law to possess it. Senate Bill 199 would have made it illegal in 2015, however, it was never voted on by the Texas Legislature. The substance has been outlawed by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency making it a federal crime to possess Flakka. Expect Texas to formally follow suit and outlaw Flakka in their next legislative session in 2017.