The zombie apocalypse is upon us, and South Florida is ground zero! Or at least, that’s what people thought a few years ago. After a series of disturbingly violent crimes, the gravel drug, also called flakka, was implicated as the cause of the reported erratic and barbaric behavior. Florida Law enforcement, at the time, were battling synthetic street drugs, some of which were known to cause paranoia and psychosis.

After the incidents, the public and news outlets gave gravel the new moniker, “the zombie drug.” But what are the effects of the gravel drug and does it really cause human beings to go into a zombie-like state?

What is the Gravel Drug?

Flakka, gravel, or its chemical name α-Pyrrolidinopentiophenone, is a synthetic stimulant that was first synthesized in the 60s. As a stimulant, the drug mimics some of the effects of cocaine and crystal meth, which has led to its use as a designer drug in recent years. A designer drug is a synthetic substance that mimics the effects of an existing drug.

Users often turn to designer drugs when standard choices become too expensive or because they are technically legal. Once a substance is outlawed, gray market drug labs make new, slightly different compounds with the same effect and a different legal status.

The gravel drug can cause hyperactivity, paranoia, and hallucinations. This combination of effects can be dangerous. Many other drugs that cause hallucinations like LSD or psilocybin also cause a relaxed feeling or a body high. In other words, when someone on LSD experiences dysphoria or panic, they stay in their bean bag chair.

However, gravel is a stimulant, which means that frightening hallucinations or psychosis cause users to get up and walk, run, fight, or drive, which leads them into dangerous situations.

How Did Gravel/Flakka Earn its Reputation?

Gravel is the second generation of a drug known by users and law enforcement as “bath salts.” Bath salts are synthetic designer drugs that are sold as mundane items like plant food or bath salts and marked with the message, “not for human consumption.” Since the substance was technically not yet banned and it wasn’t being sold as a recreational drug, it was a legal gray area.

When gravel began to show up in instances of violent crime and suicides, it was called a “new drug” despite existing since the 60s. However, few specific events earned it the zombie drug nickname.

In Miami in May of 2012, a naked man was found gnawing on the face of another man at 2 p.m. near the MacArthur Causeway. Witnesses called an officer to the scene who repeatedly instructed the attacker, later identified as Rudy Eugene, to stop. The officer shot him once, he continued his attack, and then he was shot until dead. The victim, a homeless man named  Ronald Poppo, survived after losing around 80% of his facial tissue and his left eye. Police thought bath salts or cocaine psychosis caused Eugene to attack.

Four years later in August of 2016, an FSU student named Austin Harrouff left a Florida restaurant on foot and walked three miles toward his home before stopping at a suburban couple’s house that was on the way. He attacked and killed the couple with a pocket knife and began eating the man’s face before police arrived. It took three officers to subdue him despite using tasers and a K-9. Again, law enforcement believed gravel was to blame.

However, despite the theories and media buzz, it could not be definitively proven that gravel or bath salts were involved. The toxicology report for the Eugene case says they found marijuana and unidentified pills in his system. Broward County sheriff, Al Lamberti hypothesized that it could be a new street drug that has not yet been identified.

In the second case, it was later determined that Harrouff was not on bath salts or gravel but was suffering from a psychotic break. Harrouff is still awaiting his trial in November.

Still, bath salts and flakka have been implicated in a number of other violent crimes.

The Effects of The Gravel Drug

Gravel is a synthetic cathinone that produces effects that are similar to the effects of cocaine and methamphetamine. Studies show that the drug is a powerful stimulant that activates the brain’s reward center, which suggests that the drug has a high potential for abuse. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, synthetic cathinones like 3,4-methylenedioxypyrovalerone (MDPV) are ten times more powerful than cocaine.

Gravel causes hyperstimulation and hallucinations that can led to panic and paranoia. Other effects include:

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Tremors
  • Problems Sleeping

Some cases have ended in suicide, either intentionally or because of an accident. It may also potentially cause heart failure, especially when combined with other stimulants.

In some cases, users report a spike in body temperature. This effect explains why, in some instances, people have taken off their clothes while under the influence of gravel. Some have reported  trying to cool off by removing clothing. In many cases, paranoia and hyperstimulation will cause users to run away from perceived threats, into traffic, or into other dangerous settings.

Can Gravel Turn You Into a Zombie or Cannibal?

Despite dangerous effects, there is no evidence to suggest that gravel makes people act violently. At least, not on it’s own. In cases like the Miami attack, where the suspect may be on synthetic cathinones, there may be other factors to consider. Eugene was known for violent offenses, including domestic abuse. If a person is prone to violence, gravel may be a catalyst for violence but it isn’t necessarily a cause. Other cases, like Austin Harrouff, may be caused by psychosis or schizophrenia alone.

Synthetic designer drugs are often unpredictable and can baffle law enforcement, especially when trying to run toxicology reports. But for users, there is often no way to know the difference between what you are expecting to take and a host of substances that can potentially kill you.

While there isn’t a drug that can turn you into a zombie, there are dangerous substances that can lead to overdose or a life struggling with addiction.

If you or a loved one is fighting addiction of any kind, there are treatments available that can help you start your recovery. Call Ocean Breeze Recovery today at 855-960-5341.

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