Men passed out on sidewalk

For the second time in three months, a potentially fatal batch of synthetic cannabinoids caused a spike in local overdoses associated with the drug commonly referred to as “K2” or “Spice.” District agencies and community organizations have collaborated to caution citizens about the danger of the drug, which is plant matter sprayed with frequently changing chemical compounds.   

“It’s more like synthetic PCP,” Metropolitan Police Department Commander William Fitzgerald told concerned citizens and ANC commissioners at a recent meeting at the Fifth District police station on Bladensburg Road, NE. 

D.C. government re-circulated a flier (folleto en español) about the dangers of the drug that was first used in July when overdoses spiked, several resulting in fatalities. The flier emphasizes the importance of staying hydrated and provides phone numbers to call in case of emergency.  

From July 14 through Sept. 27, D.C. Fire and Emergency Medical Services treated or transported 1,855 patients to hospitals for symptoms consistent with synthetic drug overdoses. Both call volume and transport numbers were “significantly higher than normal,” similar to the July spike of more than 300 overdoses, according to an e-mail from the D.C. Interagency Council on Homelessness.  

The ICH has been tracking several K2 “hot spots” where the drugs are used and sold. Before so many people had been sickened by these “bad batches” of the substance, Street Sense Media Vendor Frederic John observed one such hot spot while traveling on a Metro bus in the Eckington neighborhood. He noticed flashing lights and first responders surrounding some people on the sidewalk of North Capitol Street.   

“EMTs were attending to people who were staggering or sprawled on the sidewalk — like a war zone,” he recalled. “They’re selling this as potpourri packets, like a treat … but it’s wreaking havoc in local neighborhoods.” 

Weeks later, because so many people had overdosed at the intersection of North Capitol Street and Florida Avenue NE that John described, FEMS stationed an ambulance there to reduce response time. 

“It’s like they’re targeting indigent and homeless individuals who can pay $2 or $3 for a hit,” said a resident at the community meeting in Fifth District Station. “We gotta get a handle on this.”  

When MPD first started seeing synthetic drugs in D.C., the substance seemed to be marketed toward a younger population, according to Lt. Andrew Struhar, who specializes in narcotics. When the city enacted legislation to allow regulatory agencies to fine distributing stores and close them down, K2 shifted user bases.  

“For whatever reason, K2 seemed to get focused in places where homeless people gathered,” Struhar said. “Places like [Martin Luther] King Library, Union Station and Starburst Plaza, it was probably a couple years ago that we saw synthetic drugs going in that direction. [Dealers] also know that they have a population that’s using the drug in shelters, so they’re taking the drug to where that population is.” 

[Read more: Man who used to sell synthetic drugs says dealers prey on shelter residents and target the poor]

A  K2 hotspot is located near So Others Might Eat, a nonprofit organization that helps D.C.’s poor and homeless community members, just off North Capitol Street NW. In response to fatalities in the area, SOME has created an on-call clinician team to assist with addiction treatment Monday through Friday from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m.  

“K2 and other synthetic drug abuse is an epidemic in our city,” SOME tweeted on Sept. 14. “Its cheapness and unpredictability make it highly dangerous and, as we’ve seen today, deadly, particularly among the vulnerable population that SOME serves.”  

Neighbors at the meeting in Fifth District Station noted that shelter vans typically bring shelter residents to SOME as early as 5:30 a.m. before the organization opens to serve breakfast.  The homeless passengers may be left without shelter, restrooms or recreation for a couple of hours. 

To address this, SOME has revived the practice of opening their dining room earlier, before and between meal services. The ABLE program helps clients get off the street and engage in activities, according to a spokesperson for the organization. 

Michelle Busch, a local business owner and former D.C. government employee, lives in the Trinidad neighborhood and passes by the North Capitol Street and Florida Avenue intersection frequently. She said synthetic cannabinoids are nothing new. 

“I think [K2] has become the new it-drug because of the pricing – it’s cheap,” Busch said. “K2 came across my radar around 2010, 2012. I noticed it at a lot of gas stations and liquor stores.”  

Shiloh Baptist Church, Busch’s place of worship, shared an announcement in September during a Sunday service to educate the congregation about the recent uptick in synthetic drug overdoses in the local community.  

“I have seen the emergency alert sent out by D.C. government, and I think it’s important that this goes out,” Busch said. “But for me, having worked in criminal justice and now in mental health, I believe you need to do intervention where people are… Go to the corner of North Capitol Street and Florida Avenue, set up a pop-up with coffee, tea, water, etc. and just talk to people.” 

[Read more: Members of the homeless community share their experience with synthetic cannabinoids]

Jennifer Stoloff, a D.C. resident who lives off H Street NE, encountered a man who was convulsing on the ground after overdosing outside of Union Station. Though she was commuting to her job in Bethesda, Maryland, she and several other women stopped to assist the man.  

“[We] were going to roll him over, and when he started retching we held him on his side,” Stoloff said. “A guy wearing surgical gloves came up to us and … he sort of took over… He said he thought it was K2 and pointed out all these folks lying on the ground either zoned out or passed out. I really hadn’t noticed it before.” 

Responding to these overdoses has caused a drain on MPD and FEMS resources, according to Commander Fitzgerald.  

“That’s what drives me crazy with this K2 thing. It’s got all my officers pulled into one area. When police officers are concentrated in one area of the city, it means that their response time is slower for other incidents,” Fitzgerald said. 

In response to the increase in K2 overdoses this year, Mayor Muriel Bowser proposed emergency legislation to make it easier for law enforcement to pursue and arrest K2 dealers. The bill bans the common chemicals found in synthetic drugs based on the class of the compound, rather than the individual compound.   

The legislation likely won’t solve the synthetic drug issue, according to Struhar, but adjusting law enforcement procedure is a step in the right direction. The new bill would enable officers to use their experience and knowledge to determine whether a substance is an illegal cannabinoid rather than having to wait for a laboratory analysis.  

“It’s going to make it easier for us to address the people who are selling the drug,” Struhar said. “We’ve seen this before and gotten through it, and we’ll work together to get through this one.”