This past summer’s synthetic marijuana “epidemic” has had city and law enforcement officials in a panic over what to do about the easy-to-obtain weed-copycat known as K2. And after signing a bill last month to criminalize the drug’s sale and production, this week, Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration has launched a ripped-from-the-Eighties public awareness campaign that would make Nancy Reagan green with envy.
“The campaign seeks to educate current users, potential users, and sellers of K2,” says Dr. Hillary Kunins, assistant commissioner at the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. “Even though it’s called synthetic marijuana, it’s not a natural product, [K2] is made from chemicals in a lab that change from batch to batch,” says Kunins. “It’s unpredictable.”
The city’s campaign features advertisements with the tagline that all forms of K2, marketed under various brand names, contain “0% marijuana,” but…wait for it…are “100% dangerous.” The ads will be displayed on bus shelters, phone kiosks and businesses in areas that have the highest use and sale of K2. The New York City Department of Consumer Affairs will also mail more than 9,000 postcards to licensed cigarette retailers, including bodegas, delis, and grocery stores. “No matter what you call it, K2 is unsafe and illegal,” the postcards read, while also outlining the punishment for selling the drug, which can include up to a year in prison and fines exceeding $100,000. Stores have the option of hanging a sign in the window affirming their commitment to not sell K2. Additionally, Kunins says the city will distribute palm cards, tiny pocket-size cards that potential users can take with them, that provide cautionary information about the drug.
K2, also sold as “Spice,” “Green Giant,” and “Caution” is marketed as a marijuana alternative, meant to stimulate psychoactive effects that mimic those of THC (tetrahydrocannabinol), the chemical compound in cannabis that makes users feel high. But Julie Netherland, deputy director for the New York State office of the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA), says that K2 and similar products should not be called “synthetic marijuana,” as the substances that fall into this category are varied and always changing, sometimes bearing more a resemblance to other, harder, psychoactive drugs. “That term [synthetic marijuana] came about because some of the chemicals are intended to act on the brain’s cannabinoid receptors — the same receptors that marijuana effects,” Netherland tells the Voice. These “legal highs” not only mimic marijuana, but also sometimes ecstasy, opioids, cocaine, and methamphetamine.
DPA reports that many people started using synthetic cannabinoid products in order to pass drug tests — a problem exacerbated by the criminalization of low-level cannabis possession. The designer drug is made up of chemicals used in plant sprays, and is either smoked or eaten. However, unlike cannabis, these products have a much greater capacity to cause harm than marijuana ever could: they’ve been linked to thousands of poisonings, acute kidney injuries, rapid heartbeat, hallucinations, nausea, vomiting, and seizures.
In 2015, city officials say they have seen more than 6,000 emergency room visits from these products, as well as two confirmed deaths; in July and August alone, there were more than 2,300 visits. About 90 percent of K2 hospital patients are men. East Harlem has been hit the hardest, particularly among the homeless population. Earlier this year, however, the Voice reported that the state and local government’s K2 statistics may not exactly tell the whole story:
What [Governor Andrew] Cuomo called “hospitalizations” for this rash of “severe health emergencies,” the New York City Health Department called “emergency department visits.” That’s a big difference. In an email, the department told the Voice that actually, the “majority of patients were discharged,” meaning they were not, in fact, hospitalized. Only “a few” were actually admitted. In other words, the patients may have thought they were having medical emergencies when, in fact, they were not.
Meanwhile, the Department of Health reports that since July the city has inspected 30 businesses and seized more than 10,000 packets of K2. In September, the city joined forces with the Drug Enforcement Administration to investigate five processing facilities, ultimately seize $17.5 million worth of K2 products, ingredients, and paraphernalia, and indict ten people now facing federal charges.
The city’s campaign comes on the heels of legislation passed in October banning the sale of K2. “Let’s be clear — K2 is a poison,” de Blasio said when he signed the bill. “It is a poison that threatens public safety and public health, and it’s taken a toll on too many New Yorkers in too many communities already. It’s something we haven’t seen the likes of in the past, and it was crucial before this trend got any worse to act decisively.”
But Netherland cautions that criminalizing substances is not always an effective strategy for controlling the use of drugs. “The substances will either be pushed to the illicit market, and/or manufacturers will continue to make products that skirt the ban,” says Netherland.
DPA and VOCAL-NY, an organization that advocates for low-income people affected by strict drug law enforcement, recommend bringing together public and private agencies, along with experts in harm reduction, public health, and drug policy, to address K2 and similar substances.
“I’m glad the city came through with their commitment to saying we’re not just going to take this criminalization approach, but also push out some public health materials,” says Alyssa Aguilera, political director of VOCAL-NY. She advocates for even more community outreach. “We need to get information to people where they’re already connected to services: syringe exchanges, methadone clinics, food pantries, shelters, and schools in a coordinated way and make sure we’re targeting people that may be using or want to use K2.”
Aguilera points out that healthcare providers should also be more educated on K2. There’s a misconception that K2 gives people “superhuman strength,” makes them impervious to pain, or more violent, she says. “That’s the description that [NYPD Commissioner William Bratton] used, but that type of language is not only inaccurate but also stigmatizes people,” says Aguilera. “Everyone who’s experiencing problematic drug use should have access to quality, affordable drug care. Stigmatizing people prevents that from happening.”
De Blasio says he recognizes that some of the people who use K2 are among the most vulnerable in New York City, often dealing already with mental health issues. “So the law doesn’t focus on attacking the victim,” de Blasio said, “It focuses on criminalizing the process that brings this poison into people’s hands.”
Under the new law, the sale of K2 is a misdemeanor, punishable by up to a year in prison, a potential fine of $5,000, and civil penalties of up to $50,000. The sale of K2 will also be enough to revoke a vendor’s license to sell cigarettes.