BROOKLYN — A synthetic drug 85 times more potent than marijuana was behind the mass K-2 overdose that sickened dozens of people in Bed-Stuy this summer, researchers revealed Wednesday.
A study in the New England Journal of Medicine identified AMB-FUBINACA, a synthetic cannabinoid found in an ‘herbal incense’ product, as a culprit in the mass overdose that left 33 people in drug-induced stupors on the Bed-Stuy/Bushwick border this past July.
Researchers obtained blood and urine samples from eight of 18 patients taken to local hospitals that day after smoking K2, or synthetic marijuana — a substance that contains chemicals made in laboratories that is sprayed onto dry leaves.
Traces of AMB-FUBINACA were discovered in the samples taken from all eight patients, according to lab tests, as well as in the wrappers and samples of ‘AK-47 24 Karat Gold,’ a product involved in the outbreak.
News of the study was first reported by the New York Times.
Synthetic cannabinoids were initially developed by chemists and scientists for research and gained prominence for drug-use around 2008 with the wide-spread emergence of Spice, or K2.
New variations have been developed overseas in China and South Asia, researchers said, and are distributed worldwide.
In the case of Brooklyn’s most recent outbreak, pharmaceutical company Pfizer originally developed the AMB-FUBINACA in 2009 and variations later popped up in products in Japan and Louisiana, the report found.
In July, the drug caused local patients to become slow in response, have a blank stare, sweat and have “intermittent periods of ‘zombielike’ groaning” and slow movements in their arms and legs, researchers wrote.
In one case, behavior returned to normal after nine hours in the hospital.
AMB-FUBINACA is 85 times stronger than the main agent in marijuana and 50 times as potent as another synthetic cannabinoid found in earlier outbreaks of K2, the study found.
Researchers called the drug an example of an emerging class of “ultrapotent” synthetic cannabinoids, adding that it poses a public health concern.
The city's Department of Health and Mental Hygiene did not confirm that the chemicals cited in the NEJM study were responsible for the outbreak, saying that the researchers reported on a small group of patients, a spokeswoman said.
The DOH collaborates with the Sherriff’s Office and other city agencies to target K2 removal in heavily-impacted neighborhoods.
In the aftermath of the July incident, police recovered more than 30,000 K2 packets from a storage unit on Broadway, not far from the Bed-Stuy intersection that locals have long warned is a hotspot for those selling and buying the drug.
Officials also proposed legislation for the development of a database for designer drugs like K2 — as well as outreach and educational campaigns to combat its use.
The Brooklyn intersection has been cleaned up significantly since the massive overdose, locals have said, following a targeted police presence in the area.
“We have made some strides into it," 81st Precinct Commanding Officer Scott Henderson said at a meeting in the fall, adding that work will continue to combat the drug’s use in the neighborhood.
"You see it’s a lot cleaner than it was. I think we did take the corner back."