NEW YORK CITY — Synthetic marijuana made an ugly return to the headlines on Tuesday when 33 people were hospitalized after suffering apparent overdoses nearly simultaneously near a known K2 hotspot at the border of Bedford-Stuyvesant and Bushwick.
The drug has been in the news on and off for years since at least 2012, when hospital visits and emergency calls related to its use spiked sharply and the state moved to ban its sale. It has turned some areas of Harlem, Chelsea, and Bed-Stuy into hotbeds of K2 use, with arrests concentrated on certain blocks and neighbors complaining of “zombies” littering the sidewalk.
But there remains confusion over what exactly synthetic pot is, and why it appears to make so many users sick.
What is synthetic marijuana?
Synthetic marijuana refers to any number of synthetic cannabinoids, or chemicals designed to mimic the effect on the brain of THC, the active chemical in marijuana. The drug — or more accurately drugs, because users can never be sure what is in a given packet — goes by myriad street names including spice, K2, and any number of brand names, including “Smacked,” "Geeked Up,” and "AK-47," and typically comes in a variety of colorful packets, according to the state Department of Health.
When you buy a packet of synthetic marijuana, what you find inside is mixture of dried herbs or leaves that have typically been sprayed with whatever chemical the manufacturer concocted. People typically roll this up into a joint or cigarette.
"You know, people, when they hear the word synthetic marijuana, I think they have an image of somebody in a white lab coat in a lab, making something up according to a protocol. It’s not like that," said city Health Commissioner Dr. Mary Basset in October 2015. "The thing you should think of is somebody in a T-shirt in a warehouse, hosing down leaves with some concoction that’s made up of chemicals that they bought on the Internet."
"Since the chemicals found in K2 vary from packet to packet, and potency can differ even within one packet, the effects of K2 are unpredictable. People who use K2 may feel fine one time, and become extremely sick the next," the city Department of Health and Mental Hygiene added.
Adverse reactions to smoking the drug include kidney failure, arrested heart rate, high blood pressure, loss of consciousness, violent behavior, nausea, vomiting, tremors, seizures, hallucinations, paranoia, agitation, anxiety, and even death, according to the state Department of Health.
While users say they know the drug's results are unpredictable, some have told DNAinfo and other outlets that they continue to do so because it doesn’t show up on drug tests.
What is the legal status of K2?
The city banned K2 in 2012, but until last year those laws were difficult to enforce. If a bodega was caught selling it, authorities had a difficult time doing more than slapping an individual clerk with a fine of up to $500 and no more than 15 days in jail, officials say.
There have been several major busts of distributors in the past year, who authorities said were importing the drug from China, dividing it at warehouses in The Bronx, and distributing the packets around the cities in doses going for about $5 a pop.
But the reason that it’s hard to make synthetic cannabinoids illegal is also what makes it so unpredictable: as soon as authorities ban a given chemical compound, manufacturers come up with a nearly identical chemical, which might have markedly different effects on the user.
In an effort to crack down on this chemical hopscotch, the city in the last year passed a set of three laws outlawing the sale of anything that could be marketed as synthetic pot, rather than going after the specific compounds.
That round of legislation also made it possible to shut down any store caught selling the stuff three times in a year and sale of the drug by an individual punishable by a criminal fine of up to $5,000 and up to a year in prison, or both, and make a shop liable for civil fines of between $1,000 and $10,000 per violation for selling any product marketed as synthetic marijuana.
Where do people buy the drug?
Before authorities cracked down on its sale, synthetic marijuana was widely available at bodegas and smoke shops. It’s been driven underground thanks to a series of laws penalizing its sale and possession.
But even with tougher penalties, the potentially poisonous packets are still available at some shops, according to police and residents of neighborhoods affected by the drug who spoke with DNAinfo. In the case of the Myrtle-Broadway mass overdose, the epicenter appeared to be Big Boy Deli, at 928 Broadway, which a police source called "the sole distributor" of the drug in the area.
According to news reports, some sellers also act like more traditional drug dealers, selling packets of the drug or pre-rolled joints to users.
How big of a problem is K2?
The mass poisoning at Myrtle-Broadway is not the first time a batch of K2 has sent large numbers of people to the hospital:
► In May of 2015 a single brand of synthetic pot called "Mr. Big Shot" sent 120 people to the hospital in a single week, police said.
► In July of 2015, three men became critically ill after smoking a batch of K2 on Wards Island, according to officials.
K2 made a splash in New York in 2012, when emergency calls related to use of the drug rose “dramatically,” according to the state DOH. And in April 2015, more than 160 people went to emergency rooms across the state over a two-week period, according to Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
Since the beginning of 2015, there have been more than 6,000 emergency-room visits in the city due to the drug, with more than 1,200 emergency department visits occurring in July of 2015 alone, according to the city Health Department.
Officials say the situation has grown less dire. Since the new laws took effect, the city has proclaimed some measure of success. In May, hospital visits for the drug were down 85 percent, with just 200 hospitalizations in March, compared to 1,200 last July, officials said.
But still, residents complain that K2 use has reached “epidemic” levels in the area around Myrtle-Broadway, and Tuesday’s mass overdose there shows that the city is far from solving the K2 problem.