"Streets Covered in Zombies"—What's Behind New York's K2 Drug Panic?

The Use of K2
Feb 17 2016

“Streets Covered in Zombies”—What’s Behind New York’s K2 Drug Panic?

“You smoke a blunt, get high and still have money left over,” says 28-year-old José Martinez, a homeless man in Harlem, of the perks of K2. “Shit’ll last you three or four days if you get a real strong bag.” And it isn’t hard to get: “You just walk down and look for the smell!”

Martinez’ drug of choice does not sit well with the city’s lawmakers, police and media. As if the city’s street homeless people didn’t already have enough problems, the city’s panicked response to K2 may be adding to them.

Last summer, the New York City Police Department released two videos alerting us to a public menace: K2, a new drug that was reportedly making the city’s homeless go insane. One video showed a naked man crouched in the street, howling and pounding on the pavement. In the other, a naked guy goes to town on a fence, punching through the wooden slats undaunted by the squad of cops spraying pepper spray in his face (he tests police skills further with a nude chase across the lawn).

“NYPD Uses Graphic Video to Warn of Synthetic Marijuana K2’s Dangers” responded one headline. A news anchor zinged, “The NYPD says this is your braain on synthetic marijuana!”

“It’s incredibly dangerous and harmful,” police chief William Bratton intoned somberly at a press conference, where he also labeled K2, “weaponized marijuana.” Of the street-homeless people and others purportedly in its thrall, Bratton said, “These individuals, many of them under the influence of this drug, are totally crazy, have superhuman strength, are impervious to pain. So some normal takedowns are not going to work.”

One thing missing from the NYPD’s dramatic public service campaign about K2 was the actual K2. The man in the first video may have had a lot of problems, but K2 likely wasn’t among them. The video was several years old and no one knows what—if anything—he was on. The other piece of footage had been cribbed from a 2003 episode of COPS and starred a man with a history of PCP use, Gothamist reported.

These inconvenient facts did not deter public officials and the media from continuing to hype the dangers of “synthetic marijuana” and its effects on the city’s homeless people.

“Our city streets are ­being taken over by zombies from a scene in The Walking Dead,” a New York City lawmaker proclaimed. A New York Times article also warned of this invasion of the undead, describing 125th Street in Harlem as “a street of zombies.”

“It’s literally poison,” said Preet Bharara, US attorney general for the southern district of New York, at a press conference.

“Synthetic Marijuana (K2, Spice, Rocks, Candy) Can Kill!” screams a New York State PSA currently displayed on New York City’s subway trains.

But how realistic (or helpful) is the amped-up rhetoric?

Dr. Ziva Cooper, who has studied K2 at Columbia University Medical Center, says that K2—synthetic cannabinoids sprayed on plant matter and sold in packets with colorful names like “Scooby Snax”—carries genuine health risks. The chemicals can vary from batch to batch, even if they’re labeled as the same brand, she says, and the concentration of the drug is inconsistent—even within the same packet.

Nationally K2 was linked to 15 deaths in the first half of 2015 and a spike in calls to poison control, according to the CDC. It’s been linked to seizures, hallucinations and aggressive behavior.

But despite the drug’s undoubted downsides, harm reduction specialists point out that drug hysteria never helped anyone to craft intelligent public policy.

“K2 is like crack in the ’80s,” says Katrina Balovlenkov, director of Supportive Services at Harm Reduction Educators. “Like, crack is whack, now K2 is whack.” (In fact, the original “Crack is whack” mural stands a few blocks away from the Harlem office where Balovlenkov and her colleagues help low-income people manage their substance use).

Happily, K2 panic is not on the scale of the nationwide 1980s freak-out over crack, which drove mass incarceration and ravaged poor communities of color for generations. Still, public reactions to K2 bear many of the hallmarks of a standard drug scare.

“A new drug comes on the market. It’s associated with some group of stigmatized people–in this case the homeless–and there’s a panic,” says Julie Netherland, director of the Office of Academic Engagement at the Drug Policy Alliance.

Meanwhile, on-the-ground harm reductionists point out that police crackdowns might get some of the drug off the street, but they can be counterproductive in helping people in need; same for alarmist public health campaigns.

Therese Sonneson, harm reduction coordinator at Community Access, a non-profit that helps people transition into permanent housing, says she and other staff came across K2 smokers a few years ago. At first, they were concerned about K2, partly because it was a new drug, partly because people did occasionally act strangely on it, and largely because they were terrorized by alarmist advice in the media. For example, they’d read to call 911 immediately if they even suspected someone had smoked K2—a not-very-helpful strategy when there’s no antidote to the drug. And calling 911 clearly ups a person’s chances of a potentially bad encounter with police.

Sonneson has her doubts about the drug’s alleged deadliness, pointing out that despite 6,000 hospitalizations in New York City last year, there have been almost no deaths. According to the department of health, two deaths have been linked to K2 in the city—in at least one case, it was due to a mix of substances.

She points out that if someone is having a bad time on a drug, panic is not helpful. “If a person is freaking out, you create a safe space. You ground them, let them know this will pass,” she says. “You don’t go, ‘Oh my God, you’re gonna die!’”

Until recently K2 was completely legal. But in October, the city passed measures criminalizing the manufacture and sale of synthetic cannabinoids, which went into effect in December. At a press conference announcing the new measures, Mayor Bill de Blasio promised to go after manufacturers and sellers, while sparing users.

“These laws do not punish the individuals that’re held hostage, held in the grip of this toxic drug,” the mayor insisted. “It criminalizes the process that brings this poison into people’s hands.”

Channeling his inner drug warrior, de Blasio vowed to unleash the full force of the law in wiping “Scooby Snax” and “Black Mamba” from the streets.”In 60 days, when this law takes effect, if you manufacture K2, if you possess K2 with the intent to sell it, or if you sell K2, you are now going to come up against the greatest police force in the world.”

On the streets of Harlem

On a painfully cold day, Harm Reduction Educators’ Dimitri Mugianis takes me around 125th and Lexington, the inspiration, he points out, for Lou Reed’s “Waiting for the Man.” It’s also the local epicenter of K2 sale and use. Mugianis, who has lived in the neighborhood for decades, has his theories about why policymakers and law enforcement have taken up arms against this Demon Drug.

“I’ve seen it so many times in my life,” Mugianis notes. “When the neighborhoods become desirable they get ‘cleaned up.’”

In a recent op-ed, a board member of the New Harlem East Merchants Association highlighted this link between the crackdown on K2 and neighborhood development—deriding the city for not doing more to clear the area of homeless people and K2 smokers. The author griped: “While some efforts have been made, the problems still linger: homelessness, K2 use and an unfairly high density of methadone clinics, to name a few.”

As we walk around, Mugianis points to signs of gentrification. There’s where the new luxury condo tower will be built. There’s the police mobile unit, stationed in the street 24/7. There are the police floodlights that shine brightly through the night in the park where many poor and homeless people assemble, sometimes to do drugs, drink or smoke K2. There’s the can collection station—recently shuttered—where poor and homeless people used to be able to trade cans and bottles for change. The metal grates where they used to sleep now have sprung metal bars, making it impossible to lie down.

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Mugianis doesn’t buy de Blasio’s promise to go after K2 sellers while leaving users alone. At street level, the distinction between user and seller can be pretty meaningless, he points out—especially since the crackdown on bodegas has moved more sales onto the street.

“People selling on the street are users,” he says. “It’s not like you’ve got a fucking kingpin in front of the McDonald’s on 125th street that’s waiting to go back to Randall’s Island [homeless shelter]. He’s not fucking Pablo Escobar. He’s a guy selling $5-worth of K2 so he can get 50 cents off of it and maybe one joint. So it’s demonizing an already marginalized population.”

Meanwhile, Katrina Balovlenkov of Harm Reduction Educators says she’s seen police hand out desk appearance tickets for K2 smoke. At one city council meeting, she says, an officer’s excuse was that police couldn’t tell the difference between pot smoke and K2 smoke—a ludicrous claim when K2 smells like “wet burning trash” and most officers are probably familiar with how marijuana smells.

A desk appearance ticket can really harm her clients. “Our population and a lot of the population that’s using K2 are either not going to get the follow-up letter in the mail, because we’re their address, or they’re homeless. And then they’re going to get a bench warrant for failure to appear. So now instead of ticket you now have a one-way trip to Rikers for a bench warrant.”

“You’ve got someone who’s high as a kite, totally disoriented, and the police set them down on the corner, like, “Here’s your ticket!” she continues. “What do you expect people to do with that? You expect them to remember six weeks later to show up somewhere amidst all of the other crises they’re trying to get through in their lives? And you’re giving it to them while they’re impaired? It’s a terrible system.”

“Cops just find a reason to collar,” says José Martinez, who has smoked K2 for years as a homeless person in the city. He’s resigned to his troubles with police, shrugging off as unsurprising that he got arrested for smoking K2 even though use is not technically illegal.

He recalls the judge’s confusion when faced with a defendant who hadn’t broken any laws. “I went to bookings and all of that, and even the judge told me, word for word, ‘You weren’t supposed to get arrested for this; this is not illegal,’” he says. In the end, to save future hassle, the judge suggested he avoid smoking in front of cops.

Martinez’s run-ins with the law have not discouraged him from smoking. And he says the crackdown on suppliers and bodegas has made the drug more expensive, but still a better deal than weed.

His feelings about K2 are mixed. On the one hand, he likes it so much he blew through a bag every day before a stint in rehab helped him cut down to two joints. He says that even if weed were legal, he’d still opt for K2. “If [I’m] in a good place, I’ll just smoke some and close my eyes and lay down,” he explains.

On the other hand, he was smoking so much before that it was messing up his body. “That shit had me throwing up,” he says. Doing that much also made him kind of obnoxious, he admits, and he started lots of fights at his shelter. “Mentally it was doing some shit to me. I was punching people in the face. Every day I come with some kind of mark on my face.”

But it’s better now that he’s using less. He tries to eat better when he’s smoking. When he sees pools of street vomit that don’t contain chunks of food, he considers it a telling indicator that fellow K2 users aren’t taking care of themselves: “That’s how you know [they haven’t] been eating right.”

He points out that often, people who seem really messed up on K2 have also overdone it in other ways. “There’s people that’ll do crack, cocaine, methadone, every other drug—and then smoke K2. That’s not good.”

What’s the best way forward?

Clearly, mixing K2 with 25 other street drugs is a bad plan. Katrina Balovenkov, has also come across anecdotal evidence that it mixes poorly with psychiatric meds. Experts also have other suggestions on how to use more safely.

Therese Sonneson has written a guide for people who work with K2 users. It tells staff to inform them about how to mitigate the potentially bad effects of K2, suggesting they start out slow with a small dose and wait at least a few minutes to see how it affects them, since people react differently. It suggests they do the drug with a friend they trust in a safe space. Explore ways to lower intake.

It advises that if someone is agitated—but without severe physical symptoms like seizures or physical pain, in which case medical help should be called—that staff try to calm them.

“It is often helpful to sit with the person, talk with them, and help them feel safer,” the guide notes. “Remind them that the effects of the drug will wear off. It is often helpful to go into a dark, quiet room.” Keeping the person hydrated is also important.

Katrina Balovlenkov says she and her team have seen the full gamut of reactions to K2—from seizures and hallucinations to aggressive behavior—but also suggests keeping a cool head.

“If they’re really over-stimulated, can you take them in the back and keep them calm? If someone is totally inappropriate, do they need to go take a walk? We’ve had one person have a seizure and we just called 911,” she says.

But these cases are the minority. “A lot of people do it with minimum side-effects, other than what they would get on any other drug,” says Balovenkov.

On a policy level, she suggests that the problems associated with K2 can’t be handled without addressing the needs of the poor people who are most likely to use it excessively or in other unhealthy ways.

“It means handling poverty and homelessness and mental health and substance use disorders. That’s what it comes down to: ‘K2 is a symptom of a different problem,’” she points out. “Not, ‘K2’s gonna kill you!!’”


Tana Ganeva is the deputy editor of The Influence. You can follow her on Twitter: @TanaGaneva