Synthetic pot stokes fears in Mott Haven

A form of synthetic marijuana known as K2 has made inroads in the Hub, worrying many that if it is not addressed quickly, the problem could spiral out of control.

Police address users of K2 at a construction site in the Hub.
Police address drug users during a recent afternoon in the Hub.

NYPD races to stem the flow of dangerous drug

A dangerous drug sweeping across parts of the city has made inroads in the Hub. Businesses, residents and the NYPD all worry that unless the emergence of a synthetic form of marijuana known as K2 is addressed quickly and firmly, the problem could spiral out of control.

Ambulance visits and users who become catatonic or experience violent episodes have recently become such a common occurrence around the Roberto Clemente Plaza construction site on 149th Street and Third Ave. that some have taken to calling the bustling business area “Zombieland” or “K2 Alley.”

The high potency and dirt cheap prices of “K2—-otherwise known as “spice” – have made the drug increasingly popular. Standard drug tests can’t detect it and regulations can’t keep up due to its ever-changing chemical structure, leaving sellers to profit without fear of serious legal consequences.

The drug is sold in bodegas and delis for as little as $5 a pack, with multiple hits per pack, or as $1 or $2 joints on the street. Made up of plant material sprayed with assorted chemicals, it is estimated to be nearly ten times stronger than naturally grown marijuana and often causes unpredictable and severe side effects. Common side effects can include vomiting, paranoia, hallucinations, violent behavior, seizures and loss of consciousness. In some cases, it has led to kidney failure, heart attack and death.

Though East Harlem and Central Brooklyn have received the most attention for use of K2 in the city, the South Bronx has seen an increase in its popularity on the street as availability and potency grow.

“It’s very different than cannabis. It’s more like a PCP,” said Ed Manchess, director of harm reduction services at the Melrose clinic BOOM!Health.

BOOM!Health, which dispatches an outreach van offering free HIV tests, clean needles and safe sex materials around the neighborhood on weekdays, recently added Clemente Plaza to its route to help educate K2 users about the drug’s dangers.

When neighborhood development organization SoBRO convened a task force in July to address complaints from the community about a recent surge in drug users congregating around the plaza, the group assumed it would find the increase was due to an overflow of patients frequenting one of the dozen local methadone clinics. Instead, it found that users of K2 were the common denominator.

“The Methadonians are not interested in K2 at all,” said Luis Laboy, a program director for Narco Freedom’s outpatient substance abuse services, who says he has witnessed K2 usage in Mott Haven as far back as 2011.

Many users have been identified as homeless and often have existing mental disorders that are exacerbated by smoking K2.

Miguel Calderon, a harm reduction supervisor with BOOM!Health who leads the Clemente Plaza outreach team, said he and his staff have seen ambulances rushing to the site more than seven times per day to treat overdoses in recent weeks. But medical personnel are often ill-equipped to handle the wide variety of symptoms they encounter.

“We call EMS, they show up, they don’t know what to do,” said Calderon.

No official antidote is available for K2 overdoses. The drug’s manufacturers alter the chemical structure of each batch to stay ahead of state and federal regulators.

Dr. Ronnie Swift, chief of psychiatry at Metropolitan Hospital Center in East Harlem, said the only option currently available is to treat a patient’s symptoms with anti-psychotic or anti-anxiety medication. Although the packets frequently bear labeling that states the contents are “not for human consumption,” many people assume the drug is safe because it’s sold in stores.

“People really think that because it’s marketed as legal, that makes it okay,” she said. “We don’t even really understand what we’re dealing with.”

Packets of K2 sold at local bodegas are adorned with cartoon images belying their toxic content.
Packets of K2 sold at local bodegas are adorned with cartoon images belying their toxic content.

Synthetic marijuana’s ever-changing chemical structure is what makes it so difficult to treat and regulate. Often manufactured outside the country and sold as incense or plant food, it is marketed with images of everything from AK-47s to Scooby Doo.

Synthetic cannabinoids have been illegal to possess or sell in the state since 2012. Under state law anyone selling them can be charged with possession, resulting in a fine of up to $500 or 15 days in jail and civil penalties of $2,000 per violation.

Last month, Governor Andrew Cuomo proposed even stricter regulations on specific chemical compounds contained in it. But until tighter restrictions are in place and the federal government takes action to stem the drug’s importation, communities are left scrambling to find makeshift fixes.

The Clemente Plaza task force has met with city officials to explore the possibility of new legislation to crack down on stores that sell it.

“It’s very difficult to pinpoint from a jurisdictional standpoint what it is and how people can be penalized for it,” said Michael Brady, SoBRO’s director of special projects. Brady thinks a stricter inspection system for stores, similar to the Department of Health’s guidelines for restaurants, could help.

At an August 4 press conference, NYPD commissioner William Bratton warned of a recent spike in ER visits by overdose victims, and announced police have seized more than 10,000 packs of synthetic marijuana in the last two months.

“These individuals, many of them under the influence of this drug, are totally crazy – superhuman strength, impervious to pain. So some of the normal takedowns that we would use are not going to work,” said Bratton.

Retailers found selling synthetic marijuana are subject to a meager $250 fine per pack, under current city regulations. The city sheriff’s office estimates it has seized 34,000 packets of K2 from retailers citywide since October 2014.

The local task force says it knows of at least three delis near the Hub that sell K2, and will collaborate with the NYPD in a “walkthrough” of suspected stores and boycott any that continue to sell the product.

Councilmember Maria del Carmen Arroyo, who represents the area and has helped spearhead a push for legislation to combat the drug, said it’s urgent the city act now, before the multi-million dollar Roberto Clemente Plaza project is completed next year.

“There’s a lack of clarity about if it’s illegal why are they selling it and the enforcement that officers can engage in if they see someone selling it,” said Arroyo. “We’re going to have a beautiful plaza in the community that should be a resource to the community and not a blight or a crime problem.”

Although some say there seems to be less K2-related activity in the plaza lately, the drug’s distinctively sweet, acrid scent was still apparent on a recent afternoon. That same day, the smell could be detected near benches outside Patterson Playground on 145th Street and College Avenue. Similar complaints have been made regarding a nearby homeless encampment on the railroad tracks near Auto Zone on 149th Street.

According to statistics the city’s Dept. of Health told the Herald it did not have, city hospitals have reported 2,500 ER visits related to synthetic marijuana this year. Those statistics were available and shared, however, by the Roberto Clemente Plaza Task Force at an Aug. 4 meeting. Still, representatives from local health organizations say accurate numbers documenting the problem are rarely recorded, either because hospitals and clinics lack the necessary knowledge or because patients don’t disclose what they’ve smoked.

Christina Laboy, associate director of mental health at Lincoln Medical Center’s drug rehab program, said that even if patients are properly identified they’re not always properly treated. She recently received her first three K2 patients at the Lincoln Recovery Center for treatment, and says she expects to see many more as the drug’s long-term effects become apparent.

“When they’re in the emergency room they’re just stabilizing them,” she said. “This is just the beginning.”