When a Kennewick officer found a woman sunburned, shoeless and talking to signs earlier this month, there was suspicion she may have been under the influence of a new synthetic drug called Flakka.
The woman was taken to a detox center in Yakima after several people called 911 to report her strange behavior.
Flakka, which produces similar effects to bath salts, does not show up on drug tests, and officials were never able to determine if the woman had used it.
However, employees with the Benton-Franklin Crisis Response Unit say they have encountered a few cases in recent months where they suspect people were high on Flakka.
Crisis employees started hearing about the drug a few months ago from methamphetamine users who saw it on the street, said Sandy Knighton, a chemical dependency professional. The drug can come in a crystal form and be smoked.
Knighton and Kyle Sullivan, an administrator at crisis, did not have an estimate on how many possible cases employees have encountered.
Knighton described the drug as a “total mind melt” that can cause users to hallucinate and become psychotic, extremely paranoid and violent.
It can raise a person’s core temperature, causing them to strip naked.
YouTube videos of people who apparently used the drug show them running naked down the street. News reports detail users spiraling into a psychotic state.
“This stuff is made up by chemists with a bathroom degree,” Sullivan said. “Really, (users) are putting things in their body that they have no idea what they are or how they will effect each individual.”
A majority of law enforcement agencies in Benton and Franklin counties have not had encounters with the drug or someone who has used it, though it is hard to determine which type of synthetic drug a person has used, officials said.
Kadlec Regional Medical Center in Richland and Trios Health in Kennewick have no cases of someone being admitted to the emergency room because of the drug, hospital officials confirmed.
Knighton says tracking synthetic drugs in general is difficult because most of the time it’s up to the user to tell officials what they have taken.
“There’s really no ready test for (synthetic drugs),” she said. “The hospitals are just not able to screen for that.”
Cases of Flakka have been documented in other parts of the country, including Florida and Texas.
The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration says cases of the drug are on the rise, with no confirmed instances in 2010 and more than 670 in 2014, according to an article in Forbes.
While the drug appears to be gaining popularity in other parts of the nation, here in Washington there have only been three cases of the drug confirmed by the state crime lab, said Caleb Banta-Green, a senior research scientist at the University of Washington’s Alcohol & Drug Abuse Institute.
One of the cases was in 2010 and the other two were in 2014.
It’s possible there are more cases statewide, but Flakka doesn’t appear to be a huge problem purely based on the few confirmed cases, Banta-Green said.
“My instinct tells me the numbers are pretty darn small,” he said.