The scene is strikingly familiar every time it breaks out, like an episode of The Walking Dead. On Saturday in Brooklyn, police received a call about several men lying on the ground, apparently suffering from drug overdoses, and took five of them to the hospital for treatment. In May, dozens of people were found slumped on the streets and sidewalks near the same spot, suffering from overdoses. In an earlier episode, in 2016, authorities put the victim count at 130.
The Brooklyn OD epidemics have repeatedly happened near the same intersection, Broadway and Myrtle Avenue, on the border of Bedford-Stuyvesant and Bushwick, which neighbors have reportedly started referring to as “Zombieland.”
What these episodes have in common is the use of K2 (also known as spice), a catch-all term for drugs originally created in the laboratory to mimic the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana, but now turning up in batches created everywhere from illicit labs in China to backrooms in Brooklyn, thrown together with common chemicals, often toxic ones.
The recurring Brooklyn epidemics are not just a local problem. Last month, more than 100 victims collapsed from overdoses in an outbreak in New Haven, Conn., in the shadow of Yale University. In Wisconsin this year, one woman died and dozens of others have suffered severe bleeding from smoking a K2-like product that contained rat poison.
The unpredictability of the ingredients is both the problem and the point. When a bad batch surfaces, made of recipes as crude as formaldehyde poured on plain tobacco, mass illness can break out. Yet the random nature of the ingredients is often purposeful, in order to stay ahead of government attempts to ban various chemical combinations under the K2 umbrella.
In the aftermath of the latest episode, City Council Member Robert Cornegy Jr. organized a press conference this afternoon at the corner of Broadway and Myrtle to announce with other community leaders a “major crackdown” to stop the K2 epidemic. Cornegy, whose District 36 abuts the intersection, emphasized that the enforcement efforts need to be focused on the suppliers rather than the users. “We have decided as a community–NYPD, elected officials, the community in general–to attack this and not to vilify those people that are using the drugs. To go after the distributors and after the people that are doing sales,” Cornegy said at the press conference. “I think that’s what changes the dynamic.”
The Brooklyn victims often wind up in the nearby emergency room at Woodhull hospital, just a few blocks from the K2 epicenter. “They don’t know what they are really getting and we don’t know either,” Dr. Robert Chin, chief of emergency medicine, told The Bridge. “We are trying to conduct a research study that will find out what is in the batch that is making them behave like this.”
Priced at just $5 to $10 for five grams, a fraction of the price of genuine marijuana, the product comes in colorful, candy-like packaging with brand names like “Scooby Doo,” “Kisha Cole” and “AK-47.” During a recent midmorning visit to the corner of Broadway and Myrtle, several open-air drug deals could be seen taking place as pedestrians walked by. The corner is notorious for drug sales in general, a problem that police, the drug-treatment community and local activists have struggled to deal with since it emerged several years ago.
In May and June, police arrested dozens of dealers in Brooklyn for selling K2-like products, including four who were arrested in Bushwick with more than 1,000 packets bearing names like “Cotton Balls” and “Scooby Snax.” In the wake of earlier epidemics, neighbors pointed fingers at nearby bodega owners, suspecting them of selling K2 under the counter, but a police raid of several mini-marts in 2016 turned up no contraband. If any stores did conduct such business in the past, shop owners are now quick to condemn it.
“This situation in Brooklyn is being addressed very aggressively,” Mayor de Blasio said in late May. “It comes down to a small number of dealers. It comes down to some particular locations. And we made clear that if stores actually are the centerpiece of this drug dealing, we’re going to close them down.”
“It’s not just the stores anymore, it’s the street dealers,” said Kirsten Foy, a minister and activist with the National Action Network, a civil-rights group. “I think the manufacturers have linked up with some of the local crews and are working together, as is evident from the [June] bust. I don’t think the city has paid enough attention to that area in their efforts to address K2.”
The challenge, neighborhood activists believe, is to prevent dealers from targeting those most vulnerable: the homeless and already addicted. Users of K2 tend to be people who have used other substances and have dealt with mental illness, poverty or homelessness.
When using such drugs, initially the effects may have a sort of “rush,” including improved mood and a relaxed attitude similar to traditional marijuana. But depending on the active ingredients, that feeling can dissipate into confusion and paranoia, hallucinations, increased heart rate, vomiting and even violent or self-destructive behavior.
Why would it be worth the risk? Part of the appeal is that K2 does not show up on conventional drug tests the way marijuana, cocaine or heroin would. And makers of K2 continually experiment with new variations. In recent years, New York has escalated its efforts to restrict K2, including a move in February by Governor Cuomo to add 36 different chemical compositions to the state’s controlled substances list.
While that makes it illegal in New York State to possess, make or sell synthetic cannabinoids, many products sold as K2 vary widely from those chemicals. Much of the latest street product is tobacco or other dried vegetable matter sprinkled with household chemicals. Users may feel a synthetic high, but it really amounts to poisoning. While K2 users may wind up sick and in the hospital, few of them die from an overdose, as victims of powerful narcotics like heroin and fentanyl often do.
“We’ve noticed there is a growing trend in usage as opposed to marijuana, but you have to understand that much usage stems from a [drug] treatment center there,” said Joshua Brown, vice chairman of Community Board 4, which borders the north side of Bushwick Avenue. He said that many K2 buyers come out of the treatment center, having been given prescribed methadone to deal with addiction.
Some are indigent or homeless, others are suffering from untreated mental illness. “I first noticed [K2 in the community] about ten years ago when I saw friends who were just out of the military using it. Other people had corporate jobs,” said Brown. “But it’s mainly drifted to people just looking to get high.”
“We’re seeing that they are mostly men in their 30s. We haven’t seen any children, which is great,” said Chin, the emergency-room chief at Woodhull. “It’s mostly younger men in their 20s and 30s that are affected. Many of them appear to be folks who are habitual users of substances already.”
“The ground is so ripe for that,” said Cornegy. “With under-education, underemployment, problems with housing, those are the things that create an environment of hopelessness and that’s one of the crutches that drug abusers or substance abusers use and stay within the confines of. So we have to work to continue to change that narrative.”
Indeed, community activists believe the K2 epidemic is a symptom of many social ills, including homelessness and the lack of sufficient programs for treating mental illness. For example, individuals may use K2 to avoid being caught by drug tests required for their drug-rehabilitation programs, which could jeopardize their ability to get into public housing, according to New York City Housing Authority rules. The illegality of recreational drugs, most notably marijuana, provides an incentive to use K2, or its imitations.
“Legalization wouldn’t solve all of our problems, but because they could use marijuana they would be less likely to use K2,” said Melissa Moore, New York State deputy director for the Drug Policy Alliance, a decriminalization advocacy group. “So in that regard, marijuana prohibition does play in.” Moore pointed out that the use of K2 is nowhere near as high the use of better-known drugs like heroin and cocaine.
For its part, the de Blasio administration has launched a program to improve mental-health care, which includes training in mental-health first aid, as well as as a $22 million plan earlier this year to expand the city’s fight against the opioid epidemic.
Community leaders think the K2 crisis calls for a multi-faceted approach. “It’s a problem that needs to be addressed holistically,” said Foy, the activist minister. “The idea that this needs a public-safety response or criminal-justice response misses the forest for the trees.”