The Bronx vs. K2: Rough Road Ahead

“K2 Alley”
At Willis Avenue and 149th Street in the South Bronx, there sits a notorious construction, which last summer was known to locals as “K2 Alley”. The site, which has been work in progress for more than a year, is close to a methadone program and a food pantry. For those needing the services, the area was the perfect place to hang out and smoke K2, often as early as 6 a.m. in the morning.
“From this block to that block, it’s a haven,” said Moose Silva, a business owner on Willis Avenue, as he pointed at the corners of the intersection, “for either buying drugs, selling drugs, or using drugs.”
At almost any hour of the day, one could easily spot at least one or two people idling near the wooden fences that surround site, littered with construction materials, rocks, and the occasional small, fetid pond. Sometimes, the K2 users came to hang out in groups.
Though these clusters of drug users can no longer be seen on a chilly fall morning, traces are still visible: abandoned empty K2 packages and used needles scattering on the ground.
The congregation of K2 users near the area was a headache for local business owners. Kim Ye bought a store on Willis Avenue about a year ago. She recalled in Chinese seeing K2 users wandering on the street and “doing abnormal things”, which scared customers away and made it hard to run a business. Tamara Razi, who opened her clothing store on the same avenue six months ago, had a similar experience, and is considering moving out because drug users frightened customers, causing her business to lose money.
K2, the street name of synthetic marijuana, can be smoked or ingested and provides a potent, lasting and sometimes addictive high to users. One can buy the drug in colorful packages sold as incense or potpourri for $5 in local grocery stores, bodegas, and even on the Internet or $1 a joint on the street. It has become the drug of choice for many individuals on the street and even some with decent jobs, and caused complaints, concerns and public safety issues across the South Bronx this past summer.
By some metrics, the battle against the K2 spike in the Bronx has been successful. Warehouses have been raided, arrests made, streets cleaned, fines levied and patients sent to emergency rooms and referred to treatment programs. But of course this is only part of the story. Though many city agencies are currently taking steps in legislation, law reinforcement and establishing educational programs, curbing the spread of K2 remains a long and challenging process.
K2 epidemic in the Bronx
Adrian Feliciano, the harm reduction coordinator at BOOM!Health, a Bronx-based organization that provides services to drug addicts, homeless individuals, and AIDS and hepatitis C patients, said he remembered seeing four or five ambulances coming to the site on the same day to pick up K2 users. He described the situation of K2 in the Bronx as an epidemic. “It was towards the beginning of this summer that we kind of noticed that things started taking off, ” said Feliciano.
The problem with K2 in the Bronx is just part of what is considered a crisis across all five boroughs in New York City. A Health Advisory published by the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene on September 17, reported more than 2,300 K2-related emergency department visits in July and August in the city. The medium age of the patients is 37 and 99% of these individuals are above 18. Male make up 90% of the user population. Data for each borough is not yet available.
The document specifically points out that “residents of shelters and individuals with a psychiatric illness disproportionately bear the burden of adverse health events associated with synthetic cannabinoid use. ”
At a city council meeting on September 21, speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, whose district encompasses the South Bronx, also said that K2 “preys on the most vulnerable New Yorkers who live in the shadows of our city.”
K2 is particularly popular among these “vulnerable New Yorkers” for a reason. For a long period of time, K2 was perceived as “safe” and “legal ” and displayed on the shelves of local bodegas. To those who are on probation or using social services, K2 is seen as an alternative to marijuana, because it cannot be detected by regular drug test.
But there’s another, quite simple reason for the drug’s popularity, according to Miguel Calderon, harm reduction supervisor at BOOM!Health. “It’s so cheap!” he said. A packet of K2 could give people much stronger and more lasting high than the amount of marijuana they can buy at the same cost.
The drug, made of chemical compounds sprayed on dry herbs, can cause sluggishness or even seizure. “I hate to use that term, like, ‘zombie like’,” said Calderon, “but there’s no other way to describe it.”
Some K2 users might experience hallucinations, appear agitated and even engage in violent activities. For some individuals, K2 could be lethal.
The drug of choice
“Sometimes, if I don’t use K2, I’m not myself. I don’t get motivated,”
said a 20-year old man who uses the synthetic marijuana on a regular basis. With shoulder-length hair beneath a dark blue hoodie, he preferred to go by his nickname “Miklo” because he is currently on probation. As he spoke, he occasionally glanced people warily on the street. With a ragged, unshaven face, a fresh cut on his hand, and a human bite mark on his arm, Miklo looks far older than he actually is.
Miklo began selling crack and heroin when he was 11, and dropped out of school in 8th grade. At the age of 14, he started to hang out with “the big-time dealers” and that was when he began to abuse hard drugs and turned violent. Miklo has been in jail three times, two misdemeanors and one felony of firing a gun. He heard of K2 in 2006 from a friend that was on parole. When he got out of prison last October, he started to use K2 heavily, two packs a day and sometimes even more.
Miklo lives in a shelter. Diagnosed with bipolar disorder, ADHD and mood instability, he carries his probation and psychiatric diagnosis documents with him every day.
“You probably look at me normal but right now, inside of me, I’m suffering,” said Miklo as he walked towards the construction site. “The anxiousness is about to kick in any moment. And I really need it. My mind is already programmed to get K2 rolling and smoke it.”
Miklo bought a joint of K2 for $2, lit it up, and started smoking. “I feel like I’m walking but I don’t feel my knees and my legs connected,” said Miklo, describing the experience of getting high. “My chest feels strong. My heart is pounding fast. My head hurts. There’s something heavy on me. I could be with you here, but I know my mind is not.”
Waging a war against K2 is just the beginning
Starting August, the 40th police precinct in the South Bronx designated a team in collaboration with BOOM!Health to tackle the congregation of K2 users at the construction site on East 149th Street and Willis Avenue.
Litter on the ground at the construction site. Photo by Aria Hangyu Chen / The Ink
Litter on the ground at the construction site. Photo by Aria Hangyu Chen / The Ink
According to Hector Espada, the community affairs officer at the precinct, the police unit and BOOM!Health’s outreach teams engaged the K2 users through conversations. They asked the users to disperse, and had tried to warn K2 smokers of the adverse effects of the chemical compound and provide verbal education about the available resources.
The results are visible, Silva, the owner of an accessories store on Willis Avenue, said. The streets have undoubtedly become quieter.
Meanwhile, the city has been taking aggressive measures to combat K2, mainly targeting the supply side. High-profile raids and inspections have resulted in seizure of about $17.5 million worth of K2 products, including 200 kilograms of synthetic compounds and 150,000 packets of finished K2, according to Elizabeth Glazer, director at Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justices.
A city council meeting on September 21 introduced three bills that allow the criminalization of the manufacture, distribution and sale of the synthetic cannabinoids, and mandate the suspension of a cigarette dealer license if found violating a proposed synthetic drug prohibition law. The new laws, passed unanimously by the city council on September 30, aim at filling the loopholes in the existing anti-K2 laws, making K2 no longer “legal.”
Following the council meeting, another 2 million packets of K2 were confiscated in a Bronx garage.
Although anti-K2 efforts have seen success, city authorities are still in the progress of turning plans into more specific strategies. According to Espada, the community affairs officer at the 40th precinct, at this stage his precinct does not yet know how exactly they should deal with K2 since the “logistics” have not yet been figured out.
But the needs are urgent, in part because of the harsh reality of the Bronx itself. It’s one of the poorest boroughs in the United States, plagued by history of substance abuse and rampant homelessness. City services are scarce and decades of neglect have left scars that are visible on nearly every block.
Data from United States Census Bureau shows 29.8% of the Bronx population is below poverty level, twice the citywide poverty rate. The medium income of the Bronx is the lowest among all five boroughs in New York City. From 2008 to 2010, the rate of drug related hospitalization was 68 per 10,000 people, compared to 25.7 for the entire state of New York, according to statistics by New York State Department of Health.
A reported published by the New York City Comptroller’s Office in 2013 revealed that the Bronx has a total of 148 shelters, the greatest number among all five boroughs. For all these reasons, the Bronx is particularly vulnerable to a cheap, potent new drug like K2.
Miklo, the regular K2 user, is just one of those individuals who suffer from homelessness and mental illnesses. To people like him, synthetic marijuana is not a problem, but a perceived solution to their struggles.
According to Feliciano, the coordinator at BOOM!Health, many K2 users use different drugs at the same time. K2 is just the cheaper alternative for individuals who self medicate for mental problems, and who cannot afford heroin or marijuana. While the authorities are targeting the supply of K2, from the demand side of equation, much remains to be done.
“Some people, they cannot function unless they get high,” said Freddy Sanchez, a Bronx local working at a pizza shop. “They get hooked to it.” He said he knows at least five people who use the synthetic pot and had called ambulances for the K2 users on the street because he wanted to help.
Even if an individual is sent to the hospital and referred to treatment, there is not much that medical professionals can do. Because K2 is still relatively new, its long-term effects are not well understood. Evidence-based treatment for chronic K2 users is still lacking.
“I’m just hoping that they come out with some type of medication that we can use to combat or treat it, the way we have Naloxone for opioid overdose,” said Calderon, the harm reduction supervisor at BOOM!Health, “It just occurs so frequently and there’s nothing we can do.”
The city is currently planning public awareness campaign to inform users of the potential harms of K2. But sometimes, it is the unwillingness to receive help and education that causes additional challenges to the efforts against K2.
Many homeless K2 users encountered by the police simply refuse to seek help. “A lot of them don’t feel comfortable going to a shelter,” said Espada, the police officer, “They don’t want to live by the rules.”
That would certainly describe Miklo, who seems unconcerned about crackdowns or changes in local ordinances around his drug of choice. “While the government is taking certain warehouses down, another warehouse is going to open,” said Miklo.
And in the meantime, he has only one concern. “I smoke K2 because I want to feel normal,” he said, leaning against a wall outside the 149th Street and 3rd Avenue subway station. Then he held what remained of a K2 joint, sheltering it from the wind, and lit up.
By Aria Hangyu Chen