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Jac Wilder VerSteeg: Fight flakka with a tax on tobacco

A tough question facing Florida – and particularly South Florida – is: How can we combat flakka? But first, a more basic question: Why should Florida bother to combat flakka?

It’s mind-boggling that people continue to take the dangerous drug. And its use apparently is increasing. Anyone with half a brain should know that the stuff will cut that half of a brain into a quarter. And then into an eighth. Etc.

So it is tempting to say that anyone who uses flakka deserves what he or she gets. If people insist on abusing their bodies, there isn’t a whole lot the nanny state can be expected to do about it.

That attitude is blame-the-victim for sure. But sometimes that’s appropriate.

Before most of us can climb up on that high horse, though, we need to think about our own behavior. Yes, flakka induces bizarre behavior. There was the 17-year-old girl high on flakka arrested by Melbourne police in May after she was found running down the street, naked, shouting, “I am God” and “I am Satan.”

In April, Fort Lauderdale police arrested a man who said he was running down the street, naked, because he was being chased by people who had stolen his clothes and intended to kill him. He came to that conclusion after smoking flakka.

Strange behavior, indeed. But there is a legal drug sold in Florida that makes people believe they can do incredible things like dive from hotel balconies into swimming pools. That’s right, it’s called alcohol. Far more people abuse that than abuse flakka.

If people are going to consume such drugs – and they are – why should the state or the feds – who declared flakka illegal in 2014 – care so long as they only hurt themselves?

The obvious answer with flakka, as it has been with so many other drugs legal and illegal, is that people don’t just behave in ways that injure themselves. Impaired people inevitably injure others. And there are other societal costs, including health care for the indigent – a sore subject in Florida right now since the Legislature blew itself apart over the issue.

Then there is a simple matter of compassion. Even people stupid enough – or addicted enough – to use flakka deserve compassion.

Do they also deserve prison? That should be the last resort, for reasons we learned the hard way while trying to combat crack cocaine. It also was a relatively cheap drug that hit the poor and ignorant hardest.

A harsh crackdown on flakka would not be fair, particularly in a state where municipalities are decriminalizing marijuana and the state itself is on a track – albeit a slow track – toward legalizing medical marijuana.

That trend for legalized marijuana is a bit of a mixed message. But, at least as far as is now known, marijuana produces a mellower result while flakka – a synthetic drug said to mimic a methamphetamine high – produces results closer to psychosis.

Broward County has been particularly hard hit. The South Florida Sun Sentinel reported on Saturday that there have been 16 deaths between November and May. North Broward Hospital is reporting 20 flakka cases a day, the Sun Sentinel said, and community leaders and police are describing it as the worst addictive drug since crack.

Why fight flakka? To protect society and out of compassion for the drug’s abusers. And, unlike alcohol, there is no safe way to use it. In that sense, it is more similar to tobacco. Florida’s experience with tobacco probably points to the most effective counter measure to flakka: public opinion.

Flakka is legal in China, and it is easy to have it shipped to America. Getting the feds to lean on China to make it illegal could help. But a public awareness campaign using traditional advertising and social media might be able to cut off a lot of the demand. That is exactly what has happened with tobacco.

Florida was a pioneer in the lawsuits that forced tobacco companies to provide money to pay for anti-smoking campaigns. When the Legislature tried to use the money for something else, Florida voters forced the state to set aside a larger share. A similar campaign never would take the place of law enforcement, but it could be a big help.

How to pay for an anti-flakka campaign? Wouldn’t it be great if states could impose a tax on Chinese imports?

But in the absence of that solution, an increase in the tax on cigarettes – and marijuana if that ever becomes legal – would be justified to fight flakka, and whatever drug inevitably becomes the next dumb, dangerous fad.

Jac Wilder VerSteeg is a columnist for The South Florida Sun Sentinel, former deputy editorial page editor for The Palm Beach Post and former editor of Context Florida. Column courtesy of Context Florida.

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