What Is Flakka? All About the Drug that May Be Behind Florida Man Allegedly Stabbing, Attempting to Eat Couple

A Florida State University student allegedly stabbed a couple to death after possibly taking flakka, Monday

Photo: Broward Sheriff's Office/AP

Authorities have speculated the drug “flakka” could be connected to the gruesome case of a Florida couple who were fatally stabbed Monday before the 19-year-old suspect allegedly tried to eat one of their faces.

Austin Harrouff, a Florida State University fraternity brother, was found allegedly attempting to bite off chunks of John Joseph Stevens III’s face in a Tequesta neighborhood, law enforcement officials confirmed to PEOPLE. Stevens, 59, and his 53-year-old wife Michelle Karen Mishcon had been allegedly stabbed multiple times by Harrouff, authorities said.

Harrouff was “abnormally strong” during the alleged attack, Martin County Sheriff William Snyder said during a news conference.

Harrouff was also making “animal-like” noises, including “grunting” and “growling,” Snyder said. He has since been hospitalized after a prolonged arrest in which he allegedly resisted multiple officers.

While toxicology reports will determine whether Harrouff was on drugs during the alleged attack, Snyder said he “would not be surprised” if Harrouff was under the influence of flakka.

Snyder noted that Harrouff’s core body temperature was not elevated, as it would have been if flakka was involved. But he told PEOPLE that Harrouff exhibited several symptoms seen in flakka users, and initial reports found he was not on cocaine, marijuana or methamphetamine.

“When you see a case like this where someone is biting off pieces of somebody’s face, could it be flakka?” Snyder said at the news conference. “The answer is it absolutely could be a flakka case.”

What Is Flakka?

Flakka is a psychoactive stimulant that has been linked to bizarre behavior and drug overdoses, and it is also known in some parts of the country as “gravel” because it looks similar to the small stones used in fish tanks.

“It is a synthetic cathinone, which is the category of synthetic drugs that are often referred to as ‘bath salts,’ ” Jim Hall, an epidemiologist in the Center for Applied Research on Substance Use and Health Disparities at Nova Southeastern University, tells PEOPLE.

Flakka is a stimulant, which increases alertness, attention and energy, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Stimulants – which also include cocaine and ecstasy – are sometimes referred to as “uppers.”

“Many users didn’t like the bad effects they had from the drug,” Hall says, “but nonetheless were very compelled by compulsion to keep using the drug, as it’s addictive.”

Flakka was produced first in China, moving to the streets of Europe and the U.K. before eventually crossing into U.S. borders, Hall says.

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The drug is sold in white or pink crystal chunks, which are “foul-smelling,” according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

Its street name draws from a hispanic colloquial term, which generally refers to a “slender, elegant woman who charms all whom she meets,” Hall says.

How Is Flakka Consumed?

Flakka comes in many forms, and is sometimes even laced in marijuana cigarettes, Hall tells PEOPLE.

It can also be vaporized in e-cigarette devices, Hall says, but is most typically dissolved in the mouth or snorted.

Hall says that the drug is particularly popular with people in their 20s and 30s, but is used across all age spectrums.

“The adverse effects were seen in individuals who had a long lifetime history of, in particular, crack cocaine abuse,” Hall says. “The drug is a cheap $5 drug intentionally marketed to what was traditionally the street drug crack cocaine market – specifically targeted to homeless populations.”

What Other Reactions or Side-Effects Can Flakka Cause?

Adverse effects of flakka, which Hall calls a “second-generation bath salt,” can include severe agitation, aggressiveness and a medical condition known as “excited delirium.”

Excited delirium, Hall says, is when “the body temperature climbs to 105 degrees or higher and the individual becomes extremely paranoid, and often rips off their clothes because of the high heat.”

“[The user] runs outside fearing they are being chased by imaginary wild animals or people who want to kill them, and they exhibit adrenaline-like strength which makes it difficult to capture them and to give them medical attention,” Hall says.

This extreme strength was exhibited by Harrouff on Monday as officers attempted, repeatedly, to restrain him, Sheriff Snyder said. Harrouff was also half-dressed when officers arrived.

Where Have We Seen Flakka Before?

Hall tells PEOPLE that flakka can be sold for as low as $3-5 a dose, and is quite addictive.

“Alpha PVP became illegal in early 2014 in the U.S. even before we had any major episodes with it,” he says. “It first really came on to the scene intensely in the fall of 2014 in Broward County, Florida, and then had a year-long period of active use and problems.”

In Broward County last year, a Florida man was reportedly found running through the streets, naked, after smoking flakka, according to the Sun Sentinel. The Sun Sentinel, reported, at the time, that the Drug Enforcement Administration said flakka cases grew from zero in 2010 to 670 by 2014.

Harrouff has been charged with one count of aggravated battery, and will be charged with home invasion and two counts of murder, authorities said.

He does not have a lawyer and has not entered a plea – but, Snyder told PEOPLE, he could die in the hospital as a result of either “sustained trauma” from officers or a drug overdose.

As one of Harrouff’s high school friends told PEOPLE exclusively, “Austin is a good kid. People always make mistakes in college and have fun. Whatever happened isn’t Austin. He isn’t himself now.”

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