credit: Eric Falquero

On June 5, at least eleven people overdosed on a type of synthetic marijuana known as “bizarro,” outside the Federal City Shelter building, reported NBC News 4. Among other pcrograms, the 2nd and D Streets location houses the Community for Creative Non-Violence — the city’s largest homeless shelter.

While everyone survived, the overdoses reflect the influx of synthetic drugs to the District in recent months. On Monday June 15, Mayor Muriel Bowser announced a new comprehensive drug enforcement strategy, including emergency legislation that targets retail establishments.

Known by names such as K2, Bizarro and Spice, synthetic marijuana is typically sold under the appearance of incense or potpourri. The drugs can often be found in gas stations and convenience stores, although they are not legal. The composition, names, and appearance of the drugs change continuously, but the danger from their use is consistent.

In April a Street Sense contributor labeled the area outside of Federal City Shelter, near the capital building, an “open air drug market where thousands of dollars worth of synthetic marijuana is sold.” Both NBC News4 and Fox News 5 found remnants of the drug on the pavement outside of the Federal City Shelter.

Synthetic marijuana is created when man-made chemicals are sprayed onto plant material. The high from synthetic marijuana is incomparable to traditional marijuana, more akin to that of PCP, according to the Office of National Drug Control Policy.

“Its potency can be up to one hundred or more times greater than THC [the active ingredient in marijuana]…These things are clearly very different from THC and thus not surprising that their use may result in development of life-threatening adverse effects,”  Paul Prather, PhD, professor of pharmacology and toxicology at the at University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, said in a 2014 interview with Forbes.

Aggressive behavior, paranoia, anxiety, seizures, and hallucinations are side-effects of consuming synthetic drugs. Users may become violent and incoherent.

“The problem is that the marketers and the makers are constantly evolving the composition of this product,” Dr. LaQuandra Nesbitt, Director of D.C’s Department of Health, told WJLA.

In 2011, The Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) classified chemicals like K-2 and Spice in the most restrictive category under the Controlled Substances Act because they are an “imminent hazard to the public safety.”

In 2013, the Department of Behavioral Health’s Addiction Prevention & Recovery Administration created “K2 Zombie DC”, a social marketing campaign. The campaign creates images of teens as “zombies,” to portray the negative health effects of using synthetic drugs. The day after the mass-overdose, Mayor Bowser spoke out about the dangers of synthetic drugs in a public health advisory released.

“My Administration is committed to working with all relevant government agencies, residents, community organizations and the Council to crack down on the distribution and consumption of these dangerous synthetic drugs,” Mayor Bowser said.

Bowser expects approval of her emergency legislation by June 30.

UPDATE: The morning this article was printed, The Washington Post reported that D.C. Fire and EMS responded to four more synthetic drug overdose cases at CCNV.