Marketing K2 to the City’s Kids

On a Thursday afternoon in September, a homeless man sat a few yards from the playground at Public School 18 in the Bronx, packing scraps of a designer drug known as K2 into a cigar wrapper. Angel Rivera, 52, had bought the drug for $5 at a nearby bodega, right up the street from Narco Freedom, a drug rehabilitation clinic in the South Bronx.

Nearby, a teenager was sweeping up drug paraphernalia litter in Patterson Playground as part of his rehabilitation duties. Ruben Alers, 17, had smoked K2 by accident for the first time two years ago when his friend offered him weed.  Thinking it was regular marijuana, Alers lit up a joint of what turned out to be the synthetic substance. He ended up having a bad reaction to the drug, and sought help at Steinway Family and Child Services, a mental health clinic.

A colorful and empty K2 package found in Patterson Playground, a popular smoking spot for users of the drug on College Avenue.
An empty K2 package found in Patterson Playground, a popular spot for users of the drug on College Avenue.

“It gave me the worst headache and everything was spinning,” said Alers. “I had to go to therapy because I couldn’t sleep for days.”

The chemically treated mixture of herbs and weeds is readily available over the counter in bodegas and stores throughout the city.

According to the New York City Department of Health, the drug has sent more than 4,500 New Yorkers to the hospital since January 2015. In September, the city conducted a multi-agency sweep of local distributors and producers, with the NYPD and the Drug Enforcement Agency spearheading the efforts.

The city’s homeless adults in the Bronx have been struck particularly hard by this inexpensive high, some bodegas are known to sell the drug for as little as $2 a bag.But lost in the law enforcement blitz so far is the potential danger the cheap drug poses to adolescents.

Youth mentors and drug rehabilitation officials in South Bronx are concerned that drug is being aggressively marketed to children. Until the recent raids, bodegas throughout the city could be seen displaying the colorful packages next to Skittles and Twinkies. Producers of the drug advertise it as room incense. Some of the brands use flashy cartoon characters as logos that make it attractive to young adults. One such brand, called “Scooby Snax,” has the memorable Scooby Doo dog character printed on the face of the pouch.

“They make it look like they’re selling baseball cards,” said Luis Laboy, program director at Narco Freedom, a rehabilitation center with clinics throughout the city. Laboy has been trying to get the attention of school officials and other youth workers in the Bronx, to alert them to the drug’s dangers.

K2 is made with dried plant materials that are sprayed with cannabinoids, chemicals that affect the same receptors of the brain as marijuana. Marketed as “synthetic marijuana,” producers of the drug claim it has the same effect as regular marijuana.

“Unfortunately, the effects of K2 are unpredictable at best, said City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito at a recent public hearing on K2. “The drug could mimic marijuana, but it can alternatively have more serious effects akin to Phencyclidine and other life-threatening narcotics.”

Health officials report that patients have experienced a wide range of symptoms after consuming the drug including hallucinations, seizures, and loss of consciousness.

What are public schools doing about it?

In September, Ink reporters contacted eleven high schools in the Bronx to see what administrators were doing to address concerns about K2.  Only one school reported hosting a special conference to talk about the dangers and disciplinary consequences of using synthetic marijuana.

“Schools don’t know about the drug and are unprepared to talk to their kids about it,” said Laboy, who has offered to speak at multiple schools throughout the Bronx, but has been met with confusion.  Last year, the administrators at Public School 332 took him up on his offer.  “Sixth graders had no idea what I was talking about,” he said. “Seventh graders–nothing. But with eighth graders, I had four suspects that appeared to be under the influence of K2.”

Officials at the city’s Department of Health are not focusing on youth at the moment, since 90 percent of hospital emergency visits related to K2 are on average, 37-year-old men.

The city’s assistant health commissioner said her colleagues are sensitive to the marketing tactics that makers of the drug use to lure adolescents, but they have not seen enough evidence that indicates that they are using the drug. “Schools and our partners at the Department of Health have a network of substance abuse prevention counselors who have our materials and are aware of the need to potentially address it,” said Dr. Hilary Kunins. “But they just simply haven’t seen it happening at present.”

K2 sold along with candy

Jose Flores, 16, a student at Bronx High School for the Visual Arts, described a different scenario close to his school. “You walk into a store and the baggie is right there at the counter, where you would expect teens to go, like the candy section,” said Flores. The store Flores is referring to in the Van Nest neighborhood of the Bronx has taken K2 off its shelves since the raids. Still, homeless locals said some stores sell the drug if customers ask them discreetly.

A few months ago, Flores’s friend intended to buy weed from a dealer in Pelham Parkway and got K2 instead. The leaves of K2 are loose and smell like plastic, he said. Marijuana tends to be clumped together in a nugget.

A youth mentor at Steinway Family and Child Services in the Bronx said she knows that the teens she counsels have been introduced to K2 in the same way as Flores’ friend–by accident. “You don’t have to look far to see someone high on K2 in the neighborhood,” said Alaina Davis. who has worked as a teen advocate with the social agency for four years. “Teens think they’re getting regular weed, but in reality, it’s more dangerous.”

A study conducted by New York University reveals that in 2011, synthetic marijuana was used by more than one in 10 high school seniors in the United States. In New York City, however, law enforcement officials are trying to weigh the potential consequences of launching campaigns to prevent consumption among adolescents.

"K2 is the reason I'm so skinny," says Angel Rivera.
“K2 is the reason I’m so skinny,” said Angel Rivera.

“If we start going into schools and raise awareness, we will be introducing them to it,” said Lieut. Robert Corbett, who spoke at a recent public hearing on K2 at City Hall. “Although it is being packaged in in colorful cartoon strips, we don’t think this is an issue for kids.”

But a sophomore at Herbert H. Lehman High School in the Bronx said some of his classmates are already smoking K2 and react differently than they would on regular weed. “They get high, more high than usual,” said Christopher Carrion, 17, who turned down the offer to smoke K2 on campus this year.”

Olivia, a middle school student in Van Nest Academy, said she was surprised when she saw her classmates smoking K2 on the corner of Brady and Cruger Avenues last year, on the last day of school. Administrators had organized an assembly in the spring around the subject, but she had never encountered it before.

From Purple Haze to White Widow

Green Giant, Purple Haze, Red Dragon and White Widow–these are just a few of the countless numbers of K2 brands on the market. With each brand comes a unique chemical cocktail used to create the drug, leaving health officials to wrestle with the challenge of monitoring a drug that is, in most cases, invisible. “This is a family of chemicals that are called cannabinoids that have variable effects,” said Kunins. “Some packets have one, some packets have more than one.”

Producers are constantly altering the chemical make-up of the drug in order to bypass laws that prohibit certain synthetic compounds. This year, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency banned three new strains of synthetic marijuana including “[1-(5-fluoropentyl)-1H-indazol-3-yl](naphthalen-1-yl)methanone.” The complexity of such compounds forces federal, state and city law enforcement agencies to play a game of whack-a-mole. As soon as they outlaw a string of chemicals from one packet, producers create a new one.

Some conventional urine-based drug tests, such as the ones used by doctors and police, may be unable to detect K2. Most test strips are laced with chemicals that create a reaction when they come into contact with illegal substances in the urine, making it difficult for one test to screen for all possible variations of K2 ingredients. This has created an opportunity for some users, such as ex-cons on probation, to use the drug undetected if they are subject to such screenings.

In 2013, researchers with the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy tested a small sample group of young men undergoing parole and probation in the Washington, D.C. area. The study revealed that 39 percent tested positive for synthetic marijuana, but passed a traditional drug screen.

The Department of Health is taking on the challenge of collecting data from suspected users in order to provide a bigger picture about K2’s impact on the city. Emergency patients often have to tell their doctors that they consumed K2 in order to receive adequate care, furthering a potential margin of error when it comes to monitoring drug use among adolescents.

For employees at Narco Freedom, the unknown effects and characteristics of the drug make it difficult to help patients kick their K2 habit. At the moment, their South Bronx location offers 28-day rehabilitation services or long-term residential treatments for K2 users, the traditional methods used to treat other drug problems. The clinic has recently begun to study the effectiveness of these treatment programs, but Laboy said that initial results indicate a high rate of recidivism, which he attributes to the drug’s accessibility. Near the clinic’s Willis Avenue location, Laboy pointed to a store where patients have reported buying the drug for $5.

“It’s a cheap, but very strong high,” said Laboy. “It has turned into a fad that is attracting kids and adults. It’s highly addictive.” 

The biggest crackdown against K2 in New York City history

Local politicians have also joined the fight against K2 by forming their own anti-drug campaigns. Bronx representatives from the offices of Senator Jeff Klein, Councilman Ritchie Torres and Assemblyman Mark Gjonaj have taken to the streets in an effort to reach out to bodega owners. Blue signs, such as the one taped to High Life Deli’s front door near East 168th and the Grand Concourse issue a warning to incoming customers: “K2 is not sold here.”

Last month, a multi-agency operation pulled off the biggest K2 crackdown in New York City history. Authorities from federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies seized $17.5 million worth of K2 product from a processing plant in the Bronx – including 150,000 finished packets and 200 kilograms of synthetic chemicals used to make the drug. They raided over 80 stores and bodegas throughout the city, citing distributors and indicting 10 suspects in connection to a major drug ring.

Bronx representatives from the offices of Senator Jeff Klein, Councilman Ritchie Torres and Assemblyman Mark Gjonaj have handed out blue signs to store owners to snub the demand of K2.
Bronx elected officials distributed anti-K2 signs for store owners to post to discourage demand for the drug.

The NYPD has also begun to develop new tactics to control the drug at the street level. Officers throughout the city are constantly receiving pamphlets, leaflets, and videos in order to raise awareness about the drug. “Officers will be taught how to identify the substance,” said Lieut. Corbett. “We are still learning–it is still a very new drug,”

In September, the City Council unanimously passed a series of bills intended to curb the proliferation of the drug. One bill makes the sale of K2 a criminal violation punishable with fines and possible jail time. Another aims to suspend cigarette dealer licenses for stores that sell synthetic marijuana. A third allows a court to issue restraining and closing orders against stores that repeatedly violate the new regulations, which are effective immediately.

Councilman Fernando Cabrera said that public awareness about the drug is important in preventing substance abuse among adolescents. “What we really need to focus on is increasing access to meaningful education,” said Cabrera who represents the 14th District in the Bronx, “and work opportunities so that youth feel like they have a purpose and are part of something larger than themselves.”

This year, the Department of Consumer Affairs has launched a campaign to cover bus kiosks, homeless shelters and subway stops with literature about K2. Adolescents will not be their target audience, echoing the concerns that the Department of Health has about sparking interest in a drug they may not know about.

Seventeen-year-old Jose Pagan, a student at Bronx High School for the Visual Arts, said the drug has already reached its target market. He has seen some of his friends from neighboring high schools smoke K2 at parties, but has vowed to abstain from trying it. “What concerns me the most is that it’s a manufactured product,” he said. “Youth these days are down to try anything.”

Even with all these efforts to remove K2 from the streets and bodega shelves, public awareness about the drug is still in its infancy. K2 dealers have been known to sell their product online to users and retailers who may choose to put it on their shelves or sell it out the back of their stores. As cities across the nation continue to propose bills that ban these synthetic substances, law enforcement agencies have no choice other than to act fast and reach the public before the drug does. They are left to identify the current, potential and unknown victims of an elusive drug.

Back on the bench near Public School 18, Angel Rivera bowed his head after taking a hit from his makeshift cigar. Before he finished his smoke, he slumped halfway out of his seat and hit his head on the ground between his legs as the K2 ashes still burned on Patterson Playground.