When we arrived at the intersection of Myrtle and Broadway today, the often hectic meeting point of Bushwick and Bed-Stuy was even more chaotic than usual– midday traffic jams were in full effect as trains rattled overhead at the JMZ transfer point and a crowd had gathered to hear a press conference held by Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams. The racket was so loud that it was nearly impossible to hear at times, but the commotion was nothing compared to what went down here yesterday, when 33 people were plucked up from the area and rushed to the hospital after a “mass overdose.”
Anyone who regularly passes through the Myrtle-Broadway zone, which has become a hotspot for illegal activity set against a background of infrastructural decay, will recognize the smell of K2 which seems to permanently hang over the busy intersection. The area was also the focus of Council Member Antonio Reynoso’s “cleanup” effort last October, which he touted as an “interagency intervention” partly aimed at stopping the sale and use of K2. Even then, K2-related illnesses and incidents of overdose were alarmingly high– in 2015, there were more than 6,000 emergency room visits attributed to K2, according to the city Department of Health.
Adams repeatedly emphasized the importance of acting quickly to stop the spread and sale of the drug to prevent another crack epidemic. Assembly Member Maritza Davila, who was also in attendance at the press conference, spoke about her own experiences growing up in the neighborhood. “I saw what drugs did in the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s,” she said. “This is completely unacceptable.” She called K2 “a poison” that’s “being packaged as though it was candy” and sold at corner stores in the immediate area. “It’s completely insane,” she added.
Yesterday, 33 people were picked up around the Myrtle-Broadway area and hospitalized after reportedly experiencing “altered mental states” and respiratory problems from K2. One witness caught the commotion on video posted to Facebook and told the Times that it was “like a scene out of a zombie movie.”
All of this inspired BP Eric Adams to call an emergency press conference as a means of reaching out to the community. “It’s a citizen problem too,” he told the crowd, urging parents and teachers to rifle through backpacks, bodega owners not to sell K2 (often absurdly marketed as plant food, incense, even potpourri), and community members to keep an eye out in general, and report businesses selling the drug. “I’m going to do my part as an elected official, but you have to do yours too,” he said.
While the State banned “synthetic marijuana” products including K2 in 2012, the drug has continued to spread, and in August of last year, Governor Cuomo was compelled to pass new emergency regulations. The move was aimed at beefing up existing laws– the problem being vulnerabilities in the laws’ language, which manufacturers have taken full advantage of by changing the synthetic compound just slightly, allowing them to evade arrest and detection. Then in October, the City passed anti-K2 legislation of its own, targeting people who sell and manufacture the substance as opposed to users. “These laws do not punish the individual who is held in the grip of this toxic drug,” Mayor de Blasio explained at a press conference, following his signing of the bill into law. “We understand that some of the people who use this drug are the most vulnerable in our city.”
The fact that K2 is cheap, easy to find, and marketed toward people living in underserved areas has made getting rid of it a formidable challenge for officials. Use continues to grow, despite an uptick in police raids, including one in September that led to the seizure of $10 million worth of K2 in the Bronx and another operation last fall that swept 90 bodegas in a massive synthetic marijuana ring takedown. (In fact, just an hour after the press conference ended, Big Boy Deli on Broadway and two others in the immediate area were raided. The former suspected of being the “main distributor of the drug,” but nothing was found.)
Adams said that the police are further ramping up their investigation, focusing their efforts on finding the source. “We’re going to find out who’s manufacturing it, who’s delivering it, and how it’s making our way onto our streets,” he said. “We know this– these store owners are not making this drug, they’re not packaging it– it takes a level of sophistication to have a package of this intensity. It’s obvious there’s an extensive network of people who are coordinated to bring this drug into our community.”
While officials are kicking into high gear, the Borough President emphasized the importance of community participation, and used the press conference as an opportunity to launch a canvasing effort. As the elected officials spoke, a crew of strapping young men and a bunch of “men in blue” from The Doe Fund stood in the background, holding up flyers that warned K2 “is NOT marijuana.” The flyer also listed brand names of the substance (the most hilarious ones among them: Scooby Snax, Mr. Bad Guy, and iBlown) and possible effects including kidney damage, seizure, violent behavior, and death.
Adams insisted that it was important to crack down on K2 “before it gets to the prep schools and private schools– it’s already in the public schools”– highlighting the fact that the media and elected officials tend not to panic about drugs until they start hurting white people. The Office of National Drug Control Policy says that K2 use is “alarmingly high,” but the numbers are even worse for young people– according to a 2012 survey, one out of every nine 12th graders reported using synthetic cannabinoids in the last year. (We’ll just stick with the weed, thanks.)
During question time, a reporter asked if the recent spike in the K2 crisis has led Adams to second-guess the 2014 decision to effectively decriminalize the possession of small amounts of marijuana. Adams adamantly opposed this assessment, arguing that his position in support of the move to relax possession enforcement still stands. “We don’t want to criminalize our young people,” he said.