NEW YORK CITY — For as little as $2 at bodegas across the city, a growing number of drug users have been getting their hands on a form of synthetic marijuana that has sent people to the emergency room, city officials said.
K2, a synthetic drug manufactured to mimic the effects of marijuana has become a widely-available at city bodegas, prompting a crackdown from the Manhattan District Attorney's Office and the NYPD, officials said. Authorities have arrested bodega workers caught selling the drug, Assistant District Attorney Kaitrin Roberts said at a Community Board 3 committee meeting on Oct. 2.
“[Police] are arresting people and they’ve even done undercover operations in bodegas … that are selling them,” she said.
K2, also known as “spice” or “synthetic marijuana,” contains chemicals called cannabinoids, which are meant to mimic the effects of cannabis, said Hillary Kunins, an assistant commissioner at the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, who also spoke at the meeting.
The drug is often sold in packets disguised as incense, herbal mixtures or potpourri, according to the Health Department’s website.
New York State banned synthetic marijuana in 2012, according to reports. However, the law has been difficult to enforce, because manufacturing, selling or possessing the drug is only a violation, Roberts said.
“Violations are the most minor offense,” she said. “What the Legislature has done in making this a violation, they’ve made it equivalent of an open can of beer or urinating on the street.”
The first offense is a $250 fine and up to 15 days in jail, she said. But because the arrest is usually the first for bodega workers — many of whom claim not to know that the product is illegal — judges often give them lighter sentences, Roberts said.
The consequences for repeat offenses however, do get more severe, she said. A second conviction results in a $500 fine and up to 20 days in jail, Roberts said, and becomes an unclassified misdemeanor.
The law is also problematic in other ways, she said.
“Because it’s a violation to sell, manufacture or possess K2 and not a crime, I can’t write a search warrant for someone to go down in the storage room and seize all of the merchandise,” Roberts said.
Because K2 is unregulated and can be made using a variety of chemicals, its effects are often unpredictable, Kunins said.
While many users experience drowsiness and lethargy, K2 can also cause adverse side effects like hallucinations and agitation, she said. Other side effects include increased heart rates, paranoid behavior, nausea and vomiting, according to the department’s website.
“One person can buy something in a package, think it’s OK and then potentially buy the same thing and it’s a different experience,” she said.
Kunins said the Health Department saw a "bump" in usage a couple of years ago, but use of the drug has been at a low level until three-and-a-half months ago, when officials noticed a new increase in usage.
Emergency room visits by K2 users went up 220 percent in the first half of the year, according to the Health Department. Kunins did not say how many people were treated for K2-related symptoms, but she indicated that the figure was “in the hundreds.” No deaths have been reported, she added.
The Manhattan District Attorney's Office and NYPD could not provide numbers or details about arrests of bodega workers arrested for selling K2.
K2 users in the city tend to be older, Kunins said, and seem to be concentrated near shelters, according to Tom Merrill, the health department's general counsel, who also spoke at the community board meeting.
The Department of Homeless Services did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Authorities can seize the drug and test it to determine if it’s synthetic marijuana, Roberts said, but if it doesn’t contain the chemicals that are currently outlawed, they are unable to prosecute an individual.
To that end, Sen. Chuck Schumer has urged the Drug Enforcement Administration to ban hundreds of chemical substances used to make the drug and add them to a list of controlled substances.
“Statistics show that synthetic drug use is on an upswing, and that is largely because synthetic drug makers are skirting around restrictions and developing new, dangerous chemical compounds that are not yet regulated,” Schumer said in a statement.