A staged photo illustration showing money and a K2 package being held by someone in a convenience store. LAS VEGAS -- In January 2010, Lt. Gen. Stanley T. Kresge, former commander of the U.S. Air Force Warfare Center, issued a general order banning the use of Spice, Salvia Divinorum, and Salvinorin in any form by members of the Nellis and Creech Air Force Base communities. The order prohibits the purchase, distribution or possession and use of any Spice product. Spice was legal to sell in the civilian community until Nov. 24, when the Drug Enforcement Administration used its emergency powers to ban Spice and other products that mimic the effects of marijuana. Spice is made in many different varieties, all of which have a disclaimer identifying it as incense not for human consumption.
Tech. Sgt. Michael R. Holzworth / U.S. Air Force

City agencies began to distribute an emergency alert flyer on Wednesday, July 18, warning of “a potentially fatal batch of K2.” The document also cautioned that dehydration in warm weather can increase the likelihood of an overdose and offered water delivery by way of the city’s shelter hotline.

[Resource: contact an outreach worker: 202-442-4634 (DHS) or 202-673-9124 (DBH)

Starting the previous weekend, more than 100 D.C. residents had become hospitalized after use of the synthetic drug. By the following weekend, those numbers had climbed to well over 200 people hospitalized, according to D.C. Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department data. 

“There are deaths that are being investigated to determine if they are linked to the recent spike in K2 usage,” the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner confirmed in an email. “Toxicology reports from OCME are pending and therefore specific causes of death have not been confirmed.”

K2, Spice, Bizarro and dozens of other names have been used to refer to the dangerous plant matter spayed with various chemicals that has plagued the District for years, often packaged as potpourri or incense. 

“It says ‘not fit for human consumption’ right there on the package,” said John Smith*, who sold the drug from 2012 to 2015. He spoke on condition of anonymity in order to leave such activity in his past.  

Dealers like him don’t know what chemical mixtures have been sprayed on the plant matter when they purchase it. And they might mix multiple types together before they resell it.  

Photo of colorful packages of cigar wraps on display in a store.

Cigar wraps, leaves of fermented tobacco, are used to roll material for smoking. Richie Graham / Wikimedia Commons

Three years ago, Smith knew sellers that were mixing gasoline and embalming fluids with the drug before they wrapped it up for individual sale in a “blunt” or a “white boy,” so it could be smoked. Each might sell for three to five dollars, depending on how big and how potent they were. Really strong blunts could go for as much as $10 or $15. 

[Read more: Synthetic “Marijuana”: Easy to Find, Hard to Prosecute, Incredibly Dangerous] 

“You go for what they want, and they don’t want nothing weak,” Smith said. “They’re always reaching for more, that’s how it is with anything you’re addicted to. You get one high, then you’re reaching for the next high, then you’re reaching for more.” 

The day after District government issued the emergency alert flyer, the Food and Drug Administration announced it had found tainted batches of the drug in about 10 states that contained a very long-acting anticoagulant commonly used in rat poison. It is thought to extend the “high” induced by use of the drug, but can also cause severe bleeding. “Individuals who have possibly used synthetic marijuana products should be vigilant for signs of bleeding. These include easy bruising, oozing gums, and nose bleeds,” according to the FDA. The statement also warned blood donated by users of the drug could also be tainted by the rat poison, which could pose severe risk for patients in need of a life-saving transfusion. 

Because the chemical composition of the drugs can vary so much, reactions are often unpredictable. As Street Sense Media reported during a rash of overdoses in 2015, “Sometimes the high will be a calm, zombie-like sensation. Other times it leaves users violent and paranoid. The drug will impact each person differently and no one really knows what is in the package.”  

[Read more: MPD Turning the Tide on Synthetic Drugs?]

Overdose signs include collapse, unconsciousness, vomiting, and physical aggression, according to the emergency alert flyer distributed by the city. 

Nationally, youth are the most common users of these drugs. However, as Street Sense Media reported in 2016, local data show homeless adults are the most common users in D.C. The Washington Times reported that so many overdoses from the suspected “bad batch”  occurred between Union Station and the CCNV shelter at Judiciary Square, that FEMS supervisors were stationed at the shelter to speed up response times. Smith said Gallery Place Metro is also a big market.  

When asked if sales of the drugs are targeted at the homeless, Smith said “It’s not just the homeless, that’s one of many groups. It’s the poor, period.” 

[Read more: Opinion: A thriving drug scene in plain site]

Legislation was passed in 2015 to curb sales of K2 and related synthetic drugs by imposing steep fines on businesses caught selling the products. But Smith said certain stores still sell to certain people. He stopped dealing the drugs in 2015, but not for fear of the fines. 

“This stuff was killing people on the spot. They smokin’ it, passing out, and dying,” Smith said. He was living in 801 East men’s shelter at the time. “There was a bunch of us selling it, but I said, ‘I need to make a change, I need to stop selling this stuff to these people.’” 

Aquí está el documento de alerta de emergencia en español.