EAST HARLEM — "Mr. Big Shot," a potent new brand of synthetic marijuana, sent 120 Manhattan men to the emergency room after smoking the drug in a single week.
The victims, mostly men over 25, suffered a range of problems including seizures, rapid heart rate, high blood pressure, vomiting, nausea and hallucinations after smoking the chemical substance that is marketed as incense, according to the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.
“’Mr. Big Shot was too strong,” said Clarence Blackwell who lives near 125th Street and Lexington Avenue. “It made people jittery, I saw them throw up and pass out. Since April they’ve stopped selling it.”
Although bodegas and smoke shops around the area have taken ‘Mr. Big Shot’ off their shelves, many are still selling other forms brands of synthetic marijuana.
“Five dollars will get you 20 blunts,” said Jamal Adam Bowers, a homeless man who likes to smoke in front of the Path Mark on Lexington Avenue. “It’s more intense [than marijuana] but it doesn’t last as long.”
The Health Department said several smoke shops and bodegas have been selling synthetic marijuana around 125th Street and Lexington Avenue but they would not say which ones.
Between January and March of 2015, there was an average of two to three synthetic marijuana-related hospital visits throughout the city, officials said. During the week of April 8 that number jumped to 120, most of which were in East Harlem, according to the city Health Department.
After April’s spike, the Department of Health visited 34 shops in East Harlem and handed them a Commissioner’s Order to stop selling synthetic cannabis. Inspectors found the drugs in six of the shops.
The Commissioner’s Orders are essentially a warning saying that selling these products is illegal.
Inspectors plan to return to the shops and, if the stores are still selling, they could be charged with a misdemeanor, said Ricky Wong, the Health Department’s Director of Community Affairs.
While hospitalizations have decreased since April’s spike, they are still not down to regular numbers, he added.
The drug appeals to people because it is cheap and does not show up on drug screenings, according to Diana Ayala, deputy chief of staff for Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito.
“It’s very cheap, you can buy a bag from anywhere between $2 and $5,” she said. “It doesn’t come up on drug tests. So if you are on parole, if you have an ACS case, this is the ideal drug because nobody is going to be able to test for it.”
Ayala had heard from local homeless shelters that ‘Mr. Big Shot’ may be behind April’s spike.
“What they were saying was that there was a product called “[Mr.] Big Shot” that newly came out to the market and is another form of this drug,” she said. “They didn’t know if it was a bad batch or if it was a more powerful batch but people were smoking it and got really sick.”
In 2012, the State's Health Department banned the sale and possession of dozens of chemicals used to create the synthetic drug. However, manufacturers simply started using different chemicals, Wong said.
“The tough thing is that the ingredients are constantly changing,” he said. “Distributors are adapting to the environment as far as a legal perspective.”
Part of what makes them so dangerous is that people don’t really know what is in them, he added.
East Harlem has started a public education campaign warning people about the risk of using synthetic drugs. Ayala has been distributing fliers at residence association meetings, community council meetings and around her neighborhood.
“I'm a parent," she said. "I have a 13-year-old and I'm concerned that my 13-year-old can go into a store and buy this.”
On Saturday, the Metropolitan Hospital Center Community Advisory Board will host a community forum about synthetic drugs at the Children's Aid Society. Experts from the hospital, NYPD and DA's Office will talk about the dangers of using the product.
The Department of Homeless Services did not reply to questions about synthetic marijuana. The Bowery Residents’ Committee, a shelter on 124th Street and Lexington Avenue, declined to comment on the issue.