An imaginary line cuts across Broadway, separating Bed-Stuy from Bushwick and, just a few blocks north of the street’s intersection with Myrtle, Williamsburg begins. At any given hour here, the confusing jumble of crisscrossing streets are jammed with a chaotic crush of street traffic and pedestrians going about their day. The looming JMZ track overhead holds the busiest sections in near-permanent darkness, and at night, when the neon comes on and flickers across the fetid puddles of who knows what, Myrtle-Broadway starts to feel like a scene from Blade Runner. People have started to call this area “Zombieland” now that it has become a hot spot for K2, a synthetic cannabinoid that city leaders and cops can’t seem to get rid of, even though it carries a distinctly gnarly smell, and is sold and used out in the open, day and night.
Just a few weeks ago, this nasty K2 problem came to a head when a “mass overdose” sent at least 30 people to the hospital, sparking outrage from community leaders, elected officials, and concerned residents. Since then, the Doe Fund– a local non-profit with two nearby facilities dedicated to their “Ready, Willing, and Able” program, which provides housing, training, and employment for formerly incarcerated men– has organized some highly publicized actions and coordinated efforts with elected officials to stage public protests against the drug.
On July 13, the day after the mass overdose, the “men in blue” made a significant showing at the Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams’s anti-K2 canvasing initiative. The BP held a press conference at the corner where Jefferson Street runs in Myrtle where he called on the community to help in the fight against K2 and reminded everyone that the drug was being sold in some of the delis and corner stores that many of us visit on a daily basis.
Later that day Big Boy Deli– which a source from the NYPD described to DNAinfo as “the sole distributor” of K2 in the area– was raided by police along with five more Brooklyn bodegas. While a bust at the Broadway corner store back in June led to the arrest of one worker for selling K2, this time around the cops turned up nothing. Nevertheless, the Doe Fund took it upon themselves to organize a protest outside of Big Boy.
On Tuesday afternoon, the Doe Fund gathered their men for a march through what they’re calling “Zombieland.” Instead of singling out who they believe to be the worst offender when it comes to K2 sales, the non-profit said that this protest was aimed at highlighting the people who want the drug out of their community. The day before the march, the Doe Fund made the rounds at local businesses and offered up free “NO K2” signs. Not surprisingly, the flyers could be seen everywhere by Tuesday afternoon.
“We came by yesterday asking if local business owners would put them up, and we didn’t get a single ‘no,’” explained Alanna O’Donnell, the organization’s media affairs manager. “People in the neighborhood don’t want this, the majority of the business owners are not selling it, and we want to make it clear as well that most businesses are doing the right thing.”
The protest was attended by the Doe Fund’s founder, George T. McDonald, who you might remember as the rather eccentric voice behind the non-profit’s vehement opposition to the city’s decision to place sex offenders in their Bushwick facility. A slew of cops watched over the elected officials who also made an appearance, including State Assembly member Maritza Davila and City Council member Antonio Reynoso, both of whom have showed continued support for anti-K2 initiatives.
“I’m glad the The Doe Fund is participating, because they are people who have been in this situation before and they identify with the problem,” Davila told us. “And we don’t want incarceration, we want them to get help.”
The protesters wove through the Myrtle-Broadway area, flapping “NO K2” flyers in the air and chanting things like “Spice kills!” They drew some bewildered stares as well as supportive cheers from pedestrians and others who stopped to see what the commotion was about. A younger guy with an unplaceable accent and equally amorphous facial hair stepped up behind me. “I doubt they even know what they’re protesting,” he sneered.
Alanna O’Donnell, the organization’s media affairs manager, explained the reasoning behind their involvement. “The Doe Fund was started largely in response to the homeless crisis that was a result of the crack epidemic– we see parallels now with K2,” she explained. “The good thing is that we now have the hindsight of what the crack epidemic was in the ’80s, and we’re committed to doing what we can to make sure that doesn’t happen with K2.”
Not many of the men have direct experience with K2, but O’Donnell argued that they can still sympathize with the problem. “A lot of our men have been incarcerated for quite a long time, before K2 was even a thing,” she explained. “So [getting out] after 10, 20, 30 years, they have no experience with K2, but they certainly do have experience with crack. And they remember.”
Because K2 is cheap and readily available to almost anyone entering a deli that sells the stuff, the drug has disproportionately impacted underserved communities, particularly the homeless. And because of its widespread use and marketing aimed directly at disenfranchised communities, K2 has drawn comparisons to crack from all sides.
While Assembly member Davila said that the K2 epidemic hasn’t wreaked as much havoc, she warned that things are headed that way. “I’ve lived in this neighborhood my entire life, and I helped clean it up as a community organizer– I was here for the heroin epidemic, I was here for the crack epidemic,” she explained. “And you know what? We’ve done a lot of work to bring it [to] where it’s at right now. The last thing we need is to revert back to the 1980s and ’90s.”
Still, it’s a curious situation. Even though it’s mass-marketed and distributed in name-branded, professional-looking packaging that employs vape-bro graphic design and candy-colored stoner humor, it’s been difficult to stop the flow of K2.
For years, both the city and state government have been trying to halt the drug’s exponential spread. In 2015 alone, more than 6,000 New York state residents were hospitalized for illness related to K2 and other synthetic cannabinoids. The federal government has had trouble keeping up with the proliferation of new cannabinoid compounds that are replacing the older ones that have already been classified and banned as controlled substances. And the State’s also failed to pass a bill that would enact stiffer penalties for selling and manufacturing K2. Instead, New York has had to make due with the emergency Health Department restrictions enacted by Governor Cuomo’s executive orders over the last few years. Finally, in October, Mayor de Blasio approved a series of city laws criminalizing K2 dealers and cooks. Still, K2 raged on.
However, some are saying that the situation has improved at Myrtle-Broadway significantly since the mass overdose a few weeks back, when elected officials and the NYPD kicked into high gear. “There’s been a huge increase in police presence and we have seen improvement, even within a few weeks, which is really promising,” O’Donnell told us.
Assembly Member Maritza Davila, speaking at the protest yesterday, agreed. “As far as we’re concerned, 85 percent of the activity has been eradicated,” she said. “But we still need to do a lot more. I’m sure the moment that we leave and the police leave, it’ll be back.”
We found Wanda Yeh, a Broadway shop owner sitting outside the cluster of shipping containers bordering Punk Alley, amid a series of pop-up plastic tables where people sell everything from jewelry to junk. After the protest ended nearby, she told us that she’s out there every day. “This is a very hot area,” she explained. People on K2 are a regular sight. “It’s sad to see people like that, and just so out of it,” she said. “They gave it a perfect name, zombies– that’s exactly what they are. They don’t know what’s going on around them or who’s what or where’s where.”
According to Yeh, another business owner nearby recently had some jewelry snatched off her table. “And you could tell he was on drugs,” she said. “At that moment, I couldn’t find a cop. Not one!” However she said that in the last few weeks the police have stepped up their presence. “There are more now than ever–on every corner there’s a police car,” she said. “But you know, this is a very hot area, it has to be like that, and as a matter of fact it has to be increased.”
But why Myrtle-Broadway? Could it stem from all these crisscrossing intersections, commuters and business owners constantly clogging the area, invoking a sort of natural chaos? Or is it the dense mix of commercial and residential spaces that’s making it hard to pick people out of the crowd? When I asked Maritza Davila why the area was particularly vulnerable to the K2 crisis, she explained that Myrtle-Broadway is something of a no man’s land. “This area has always [had problems]– there are three precincts, three precincts that frequent this area. It’s hard to make arrests,” she explained. “That’s what I’m trying to do now, is to bring these three precincts together, because all of them are responsible for this area.”
Yeh insisted that enforcement and raising awareness alone aren’t going to fix the problem. “Unfortunately, in my opinion, I don’t think this [protest] will do much, because when a person wants to stop, they’ll stop,” she said. “It has to be up to the individual, no matter what you tell them, if they’re not ready to do it, they won’t do it.”