Confusion and Frustration Over a K2 Epidemic

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A corner where the misunderstood drug was freely sold is full of cops today, but the citywide problem has hardly receded

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(Photo by Erica Pishdadian / The Brooklyn Ink )

On July 12, the busy intersection of Myrtle Ave. and Broadway—on the border of Bushwick and Bedford-Stuyvesant—was the site of a mass overdose that saw 130 people hospitalized after taking synthetic marijuana. About a week later, at least six NYPD vehicles were present near the corner, and officers were patrolling on both sides of the street. In a stunning turnaround, the same corner that had recently become known as an epicenter for the drug commonly called K2 had now become the last place anyone would want to buy drugs, because of the constant police presence.

The rapid and intense police response to this incident has highlighted big a priority it is for law enforcement to eradicate K2. But the city’s response to the drug also shows how difficult it is to stem recreational drug use—even when the surrounding community wants to—if the laws in place are weak and the drug is misunderstood.

On Myrtle-Broadway, an intersection widely accepted to be a hotbed for K2 use, there is a deli on nearly every corner. On one corner sits a fast-food trifecta: Dunkin Donuts, Checker’s, and Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen. Big Boy Deli, one of the businesses raided July 13 by the NYPD on suspicions of selling K2, is across the street. There’s a steady stream of people climbing down the overhead subway station stairs onto the street; there’s also a heavy supply of police officers.

At least six police vehicles were present on the corner during the afternoon on July 20, and cops were patrolling on both sides of the road. The NYPD did not return a request for comment, but multiple local residents confirmed their regular presence in the neighborhood.

Mark Bacchus, who has lived in Bushwick for only two weeks, said he’s already noticed a difference in the neighborhood. “I wasn’t around during the overdose,” he said, “But I’ve still seen some things. People with their eyes closed, walking around, stumbling around. Mainly at night, but some of them come during the day, too.”

Since the overdoses happened and the police moved in, Bacchus said, it’s been different. “It’s better this way, I think, with security, because it gets the dealers off the streets,” he said. “I haven’t seen much of anything since the cops showed up.”

Felicia Esquilin, who lives nearby, agreed. “When I first moved here six years ago, it was like it is now. It was okay around here,” she said. “The last three years, the K2 use has gotten pretty bad. Now that the cops are around, it’s better again. I like it like this. It feels safer.”

But even with all the additional security measures inside now in place in the neighborhood—and in the city’s attempts to legislate its use—the drug is proving hard to eliminate.

“I guess it’s not as bad now with the cops,” said Ines Rodriguez, who has lived in the area for 12 years, “but I still see people coming, and you can tell they’re looking for drugs. It’s plain, you know? I’ve heard people asking before on the streets where they can buy it.”

Rodriguez said that the police presence does seem to have cut down on the amount of people actively using on the corner. “One thing though, I don’t see as many people falling over and throwing up and tripping on the sidewalks because they’re using,” SHE SAID. “But I don’t know…I don’t think you can just get rid of a drug that easy.”

Part of the difficulty in eradicating K2 use is the ease with which it’s marketed and sold. Alexander Horwitz, chief of staff at the Doe Fund—a nonprofit specializing in homelessness, addiction and recidivism—compared the prevalence of K2 with the crack epidemic of the 1980s. “K2 has all the earmarks of that kind of epidemic. It’s in our poorest communities. It’s cheap, and it’s easy to get. And, of course, this time around, instead of shadowy drug dealers pushing the stuff, it’s just store owners.”

Horwitz thinks the neighborhood’s reputation isn’t helping the fight, either. The Doe Fund held a protest outside Big Boy Deli on July 14, calling for the community to step up and help end sales of synthetic weed. “Even during our protest, we had people who were obviously coming around and looking for the stuff,” said Horwitz. “That’s where the epicenter is, that’s where people are overdosing on it, that’s where they’re using it, and that’s where they’re buying it.”

He also emphasized that community action is needed to stamp out the purchase and use of K2, pointing out that many store owners flout the laws banning synthetic weed by tweaking the formula in a small way. “The ingredients list just keeps changing,” said Horwitz. “And the way that drugs laws are written traditionally is that it targets specific substances rather than specific outcomes for substances.”

It’s just as well that the laws are written so broadly, because there seems to be a lot of confusion as to what K2 actually is and does.

“It’s marijuana but with chemicals, I think, right?” asked Saeed Ali, a local.

Not exactly. The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse profiled K2 in October 2015, calling the name “synthetic marijuana” misleading. The drug is made from “a mixture of industrial chemicals intended to mimic the effects of THC, the naturally occurring active compound found in marijuana,” the organization reported. “The chemicals are sprayed on bits of dried plant material, packaged in colorful wrappers, nicknamed ‘poison packets,’ and sold under the guise of potpourri and herbal incense in local convenience stores, smoke shops and even online.”

The ability of chemists to make tiny changes to the chemical makeup has been integral in keeping the K2 epidemic alive. But the Doe Fund, and others, remain committed to taking down this drug as soon as possible. “The law may take some time to catch up,” said Horwitz, “but we can do this now.”

Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, who visited Myrtle-Broadway after the overdoses, echoed Horwitz’s comparison of K2 to crack use in the 1980s. “We dropped the ball during the early ‘80s with the crack epidemic,” Adams was quoted in a press release. “We’re not gonna drop the ball now with K2 and heroin finding a new foothold in our communities.”

New York Sen. Chuck Schumer seems to agree. On July 18, Sen. Schumer introduced legislation that would add a total of 23 common synthetic drug ingredients to the Schedule I controlled substance list.

Horwitz thinks that’s an important step toward solving this crisis. “What the legislation and what Sen. Schumer has done…is incredibly important because it’s raising the profile of the problem, it’s highlighting it, and it’s ensuring that when we are able to actually find the stuff, seize it, and arrest the people involved, that there will be penalties for them.”

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