World / Reporter's Journal

Detective brings US, China together getting deadly'flakka' off streets

(China Daily) Updated: 2016-04-14 11:24

John Loges is a veteran detective and drug enforcement agent, but when it came to addressing a synthetic-drug epidemic in South Florida, he put on his diplomat's hat.

A Fort Lauderdale police detective on loan to the US Drug Enforcement Administration, Loges coordinated a trip to China last fall to lobby officials to cut off the export of chemicals used to make the street drug "flakka", which sends users into psychotic frenzies. Detective brings US, China together getting deadly'flakka' off streets

Flakka is a version of a Spanish word that means a thin, pretty woman. A derivative of bath salts, the drug compels users to tear off their clothes as their body temperatures surge.

Some hallucinated that they were being chased. One man impaled himself on a police department fence trying to evade imaginary pursuers, The Associated Press reported.

In 16 months, 63 flakka users died in Fort Lauderdale and its vicinity - overdoses, suicides, homicides and accidents, according to the AP. Anti-flakka posters around Broward warned: "Lose your mind. Lose your life."

But about three months ago, the scourge suddenly stopped.

"I have never seen a drug gain popularity so rapidly and be eliminated so quickly," Broward Sheriff Scott Israel told the AP.

Hospitals in Broward County recorded more than 300 flakka cases in October, 187 in November, and 54 in December, also the last month for a flakka fatality, The Washington Post reported.

The Chinese government, as of Oct 1, 2015, restricted exports of flakka's key ingredient, alpha-PVP, and 115 other chemical substances used to make synthetic drugs, according to the DEA.

Loges told China Daily that the Chinese government used three criteria to ban the drug: Is there any medicinal or industrial use for the chemical anywhere in the world? Is it actually being exported from China? Is it being abused as a drug?

Loges, who also has served in the US Army for 30 years, including tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, and is now a master sergeant in the Reserves, led a delegation of Broward County, Florida, law enforcement officials and federal agents to Beijing last fall to meet their Chinese counterparts.

On the Nov 1-8 trip to Beijing with Loges were US Attorney Tony Gonzalez, Fort Lauderdale police Sgt. John Jensen, Broward Sheriff's Office Lietuentant Ozzy Tianga, Assistant DEA Special Agent Kristine Costa, and Mindy Mazzei, a Coral Springs detective and DEA task force officer, the Sun-Sentinel of Fort Lauderdale reported.

Loges said his thinking was, "Let's take it to their government. ... Just because we're local officials, why can't we?"

Loges' team met with Zhao Yu, director of China's office of the National Narcotics Control Commission, Ministry of Public Security, and Shan Yehua, deputy director for international cooperation.

"They were open arms with us," he said of the meeting.

The delegation also met with US Ambassador to China Max Baucus. Loges said Baucus "embraced" the team's efforts, adding the synthetic-drug problem to his list of top 10 priorities as ambassador.

Although the alpha-PVP ban was in place by the time the group arrived in China, the trip "was important moving forward, strategy-wise", Loges told the Sun-Sentinel. Once China put the ban in place, it still had to trace the suppliers through postal and delivery service codes.

"In the history of their government, they've never done this," Loges told the Sun-Sentinel. "They don't want to be known as a source country similar to Colombia or anything like that."

In the US, drug dealers were buying alpha-PVP from Chinese labs online, breaking it down into small doses and pushing it onto the streets.

"The dose unit for cocaine is in general 1 gram, but for alpha-PVP, it is a tenth of a gram," Loges said.

"Ten thousand people can get high off that kilo, versus cocaine. The price for a kilogram online was anywhere between $1,500 to $3,000. But the street value of it was $50,000, crazy mark-up."

Loges said that law enforcement also faces the issue of illicit manufacturers tinkering with molecular structures to create new drugs to avoid detection.

"When you're changing the synthetics ... it's with the intent to circumvent law enforcement and dog detection".

"It's not like you're targeting Pablo Escobar," Loges said, but rather, trying to tackle a problem wherever it arises. He said it took a partnership across jurisdictions (local, state, federal), at the border, in the medical community, and finally, diplomatically. "You're not going to arrest your way out of the problem."

He estimated that before China's actions, and despite a concerted effort by US Customs, only about 5 percent of alpha-PVP was intercepted before it made it into the US.

The battle against synthetic drugs is ongoing. Before flakka, there was "Molly", which had flooded South Florida's streets before China banned its key ingredient, methlyone, in 2014.

The bilateral action on synthetic drugs exemplifies the best results of people-to-people exchange between the US and China.

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