A designer drug known as "flakka" may have hit Winnipeg streets.
A spokesperson for the Winnipeg Police Service says officers are "very aware" of the drug and have made what could be their first seizure of the synthetic stimulant. Testing is pending.
Flakka, which resembles finely ground glass, is chemically similar to "bath salts," a term used to describe a number of recreational designer drugs (the name derives from instances in which the drugs were sold disguised as true bath salts).
It is most commonly snorted or injected, according to Dr. Marc Myer, medical director of the Hazeldon Betty Ford Foundation in Minnesota.
"They call it the zombie drug because it causes this sort of out-of-body experience, paranoia and delusions so the person can look as if they're completely checked out, [making] them look like they're the walking dead, basically."
'They call it the zombie drug because ... the person can look as if they're completely checked out, [making] them look like they're the walking dead, basically.' - Dr. Marc Myer
He likens flakka, or "gravel" as it's sometimes called, to cocaine because it heightens neurotransmitter levels in the brain, affecting mood and thought.
"It gives an effect that includes euphoria and stimulation that usually lasts for one to two hours," Myer said. "It can also cause undue side effects like psychosis, homicidal behaviour, suicidal behaviour, and that makes it difficult to treat these patients."
Flakka emerged in the southern United States in 2013 and has been making its way into more mainstream drug use, Myer says. Florida has seen a significant surge in the drug's popularity in recent years.
The most common indicator someone has taken the drug is a change in behaviour accompanied by sweating, dilated pupils and uncontrolled body movements, he said.
"Oftentimes it will lead to really aggressive behaviour, paranoia, psychosis — that they're seeing things that aren't really there. They may have beliefs that they are, for instance, the devil or that they're a god."
'We don't need more poison'
James Favel, founder of the Bear Clan, which patrols the streets of the North End, says he first heard about flakka this summer after YouTube videos of people on the drug began circulating.
In August, Favel called emergency services to help a young woman he came across believed to be on the drug.
"We've seen people on meth, we've seen people on crack and things like that and this was very different," Favel said.
He said the woman was experiencing exaggerated body postures and was detached from reality. "Her eyes were wide open and she looked like she was there, but there was no communicating with her."
The Bear Clan is already seeing the effects of the rise in methamphatemine and other IV drug use in the city. Favel says a new drug entering the market is the last thing he wants to see.
"It's terrifying to think that drug is available in our community," he said. "The methamphetamine epidemic in our community is reaching just crisis levels and to add something new … we don't need more poison."
Myer says the addictive quality of flakka is similar to cocaine or heroin, and can cause permanent brain damage and neurological disorders.
"The difficulty is going to be staying on top of the development of new drugs as they come along … it won't be the last one we see."