By Sabina Mollot
K2, or synthentic marijuana, a new drug associated with the growing homeless population that they city has recently declared war on, is now facing combat legislatively.
On Monday morning, the City Council held a hearing to discuss new bills to fight the epidemic, including one, by Council Member Dan Garodnick, that would shut down bodegas that have been selling the product cheaply and openly.
“Until they clean up their act,” he said. This would be by recognizing synthetic drug violations as a nuisance that could be declared under the Nuisance Abatement Law.
The problem currently, explained Garodnick, that despite the store owners’ brazen behavior, those hawking the product have been able to stay one step ahead of the law by routinely altering the chemical mix of ingredients.
“The problem legislators have encountered is defining the drug has proved somewhat elusive because the composition of the drug changes so frequently,” he said.
The product, also known as Scooby Snax, Spice and Dead Man Walking, is sold in its herbal form or sometimes as a rolled up cigarette, with the price of a joint going for a dollar or two.
The synthetic cannabinoids consist of a variety of herbs sprayed with chemicals to produce a psycho-active effect. And despite the “synthetic marijuana” label, “there’s nothing about it that is marijuana,” said Garodnick. “The effects are much stronger and more dangerous than ordinary marijuana. It’s definitely something that’s impacting a fair number of homeless people. So when you see people who look like zombies and wonder what drug they’re using, it’s likely K2.”
In Garodnick’s East Side district, which includes part of Times Square and Penn Station, constituents have raised concerns about activity.
“A drug you can find in a bodega is about as accessible as you can get,” he said.
A bill sponsored by Council Member Ruben Wills would impose steep fines ($5,000-$50,000) for manufacturing or selling a variety of synthetic cannabinoids. Another bill, by Council Speaker Melissa Mark Viverito, would revoke the cigarette licenses of stores selling K2 or imitation drugs.
However, it’s not just stores that have been selling K2. It’s also been available to buy online on sites such as Craig’s List, eBay and Amazon. Garodnick said he and his colleagues have reached out to the different companies about this earlier in the month. Craig’s List, he noted, responded immediately to remove the listings.
Garodnick said he expects the Council’s bills to pass “in the near term,” as they haven’t seen any opposition.
Considering the dangers of the drug, a couple of Council members have also raised the possibility of decriminalizing marijuana as a safe alternative, Gothamist reported.
“I believe that part of the blame for the increase in the popularity of K2 and other smoke-able synthetics lies on our outdated marijuana laws,” Council Member Corey Johnson is quoted as saying. “Some people smoke K2 to avoid a positive drug test result for marijuana — a much safer drug.”
Garodnick did not respond to Town & Village’s request on his thoughts about decriminalization of pot. The Gothamist report quoted Elizabeth Glaser, a rep for Mayor de Blasio, who said the administration was not in support of this idea.
Meanwhile, concerns about the city’s move to respond to the K2 crisis have been raised by the Coalition for the Homeless. The organization’s leaders argued that the city shouldn’t criminalize addicts, and instead focus on treatment. The coalition also asked for 30,000 units of supportive housing in the city and state over the next decade for people dealing with drug addiction as well as the disabled.
Mary Brosnahan, president and CEO of the Coalition for the Homeless, said, “Decades of experience have taught us that we cannot incarcerate our way through this, or any drug problem, and that expanding treatment options, including supportive housing, is the cost-effective and humane solution.”
Last Wednesday, the NYPD took down a major K2 distribution ring operating in all five boroughs and published reports indicate its prevalence in homeless encampments such as 125th Street in Harlem.
According to figures released by the city, the drug has sent 4,500 people to the emergency room this year, and over half of the incidents — 2,300 — were in July and August alone. According to NYC Department of Health data, while the drug causes relaxation in some, some users have extreme anxiety, confusion, paranoia, and hallucinations. Other reported effects include rapid heart rate, vomiting, seizures and fainting. Synthetic marijuana can also cause kidney failure, raise blood pressure and reduced blood supply to the heart. In a few cases, it has been linked with heart attacks.