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,”