Photo of packaging for the synthetic drug Scooby Snax, which is often sold as potpourri.
Fine Herbal Incense/Flickr

Inside a Church of the Epiphany conference room, a young woman struggles to keep her eyes open or hold her own weight. Security staff, volunteers and Interim Rector Elizabeth Gardner talk anxiously in the doorway.

The woman and a male friend had wandered into the church looking for food. She sips from a glass of milk while Gardner contemplates whether to call an ambulance. It is quickly decided the woman is stable and coming down from her “high.” She’ll ride it out in the conference room.

Unfortunately, this is not the first time the church has confronted the real and dangerous effects of “synthetic marijuana.”

The drug — which is nothing like its eponymous counterpart — has been a problem in the District for several years. But new legislation cracking down on businesses who sell the drug, increased media attention and continued policing have seen drug users and street merchants testing new areas for solitude.

The problem persists because new versions of the drug continuously appear. Manufacturers design new chemical iterations to evade laws and meet demand.

Recently, Washington DC has seen a steady rise in its distribution, use, and repercussions.

In June alone, ten overdoses occurred outside the largest homeless shelter in the District. The drug is thought to be linked to growing violence in the city. Just last week, D.C. police seized 265 pounds–19,240 packets–of the synthetic drug Bizarro at a warehouse in Northwest D.C.  Two men face federal charges of possession with intent to distribute and each faces a possible 20 years in prison.

Fear of the Unknown

Synthetic marijuana appeals to many users because it is not easily detected on drug tests.

“A lot of people started smoking Scooby because it’s not detected in a lot of drug surveillance,” said John Wilson,* a D.C. resident who has witnessed the rise of the drug in his Southeast neighborhood. “What I’ve heard is the feds have created a test that will pick it up. But that only catches people that are in the court system.”

There is no usable field test at this time that can accurately detect the ever-changing chemical complexities of synthetic drugs. Drugs samples must be sent to a lab for analysis.

The name changes, as does the formula, according to Wilson. Users ask for “K2,” “Spice,” “Scooby,” or “Bizarro,” and with each purchase, they are taking a gamble.

“You have no idea what you’re getting when you buy it,” said Ken Martin, a Street Sense vendor who has witnessed the effects of K2 on his friends. “The people I knew that started smoking K2 are not the same people I knew before.”

“You can hallucinate. You get stuck. You get wild”

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.

“This stuff has different effects on you,” Wilson said. “Sometimes it has you where you are stuck: you know what’s going on around you, but you can’t react to it. You could be sitting there, and know I’m going in your pocket, and you’re conscious of everything that’s going on, you just don’t have the power to resist or stop me.”

But other times, users hallucinate. Wilson recalls seeing a man on the street who took off his clothes, jumped onto a bike rack on the front of a Metro bus and refused to come down. He noted the man’s “super human strength”–similar to the effects of PCP–that required seven to eight officers to restrain him.

Based on the packaged product sold on the streets, you cannot determine what the high will be.

Wilson explained that the loose synthetic “VA,” named after Virginia, where it’s produced, is twice as strong as what is in the commercial packaging.

Availability

Synthetic drugs are taking reign over others for a primary reason: they’re accessible. It can be found online, at convenience stores, and on the street, often masked as potpourri with the label “Not for human consumption.”

“It’s really not an incense, it’s really a drug being sold under the disguise of incense. Who buys a little tiny pack of incense for $10 anyway?” Wilson said. “You can get a whole bag of potpourri for four or five dollars.“

A quick Google search can pinpoint a dozen wholesale online marketplaces, making it clear that synthetics are far easier to come by than natural marijuana.

One webpage even offers a disclaimer, even though the products are listed as not for human consumption:  “first timers should try the Doggie Snax Incense Original Flavor, but frequent buyers are encouraged to purchase the Doggie Snax Potpourri 2nd Generation.”

Many of the stores that do not sell it are posting signs that read “We pledged not to sell synthetic drugs or drug paraphernalia,” in the hope that it will defer interested buyers who frequently stop in. But it doesn’t do much.

Mary,* a cashier at a Southeast convenience store, told Street Sense that someone comes in asking for “Scooby” every day, despite the sign posted on the doorway of the store.

“The first time someone came up to the counter asking for ‘Scooby Snax,’ I said ‘We don’t sell dog food here,’” Mary said. “My co-worker had to explain to me what they meant.”

In mid-July, she had to call 911 after a man overdosed on the synthetic drug outside the store.

“I have no idea what it was laced with, but he was foaming at the mouth,” she recalled.

The Price Tag

“It’s a vicious drug, and it’s so affordable,” Wilson said, adding urgency to the understanding of the crisis at hand.

Synthetic drugs are far cheaper than their alternatives, and this has greatly contributed to the widespread effects the drugs have had on homeless and low-income communities.

Wilson explains that $10 for a drug is very inexpensive. With one small pack of K2, users can roll about 30 joints and sell each one for $4. It’s affordable and it’s profitable.

“You notice, most people who are passing out are in homeless areas or homeless shelters, because it’s so easy to afford. It’s not like heroin where you have to get $20 or $40. These people, all you need to do is just hustle up about $3 and that one joint is going to take you away.”

Legal Efforts

In July, Mayor Bowser signed into law emergency legislation to punish businesses for selling synthetic drugs. This has only pushed the drugs onto the streets according to Wilson.

The “Sale of Synthetic Drugs and Emergency Amendment Act” allows authorities to shut down any business selling synthetic drugs for up to four days. The business can also face fines up to $10,000. Second-time offenders face up to $20,000, a thirty-day shut down or the loss of their license.

At an August 12 press conference, Bowser responded to a general question about “synthetic marijuana” by correcting the name. “I talked about synthetic drugs,” she said. “I almost never call it synthetic marijuana and I would encourage you not to call it that either, because it’s nothing like marijuana. We know that these drugs produce really psychotic effects, we know that they are causing people to act in very irrational ways, violent ways…. We know that synthetic drug use is a problem that we’re concerned about.”

Wilson believes the problem is that stores caught selling synthetic marijuana in the guise of incense or potpourri are treated similarly to if there were a health code infraction: the business is made to temporarily close. However, in October 2014 synthetic drugs became recognized as a “Schedule 1 controlled substance by the District Department of Health. This puts synthetics in the same category as heroin, LSD and ecstasy, which means their use or possession with intent to sell merits the same legal ramifications.

“Somebody needs to start going to jail, just like if it’s heroin or cocaine. Somebody needs to pay. People are dying from this drug. People are burning up brain cells that are never coming back. They’re changing these people’s lives,” Wilson said.

The Metropolitan Police Department (MPD)’s strategy isn’t to try to lock up users, explained Department’s Director of Communications Gwendolyn Crump in an e-mail. MPD is trying to deter users from taking the synthetic drug in the first place because it endangers them and the community.

Police engagement has proved to be an effective means of addressing the problem for the Church of the Epiphany, located downtown in Northwest, D.C.

The church, which hosts breakfasts and programs for over 200 people experiencing homelessness each Sunday, has recently seen dealers and addicts on the grounds while parishioners try to run the programs inside. None of them are regular program participants.

“We called 911 three Sundays in a row. Two for overdoses and one for fighting, but all three related to K2,” said Interim-Rector Gardner.

In response to what she had seen three Sundays in a row, Gardner made a preemptive call to 911 on the fourth Sunday. It was at that time that two neighborhood policemen, officers who know everyone by name just as well as the church staff, offered to come by during the program. In this way, they were able to focus on crisis prevention rather than crisis management. Gardner said that this proactive measure gave everyone a chance to exhale.

“I wanted our community to know that they can feel safe. I wanted everyone to feel like this is a sanctuary. That’s what the red door means: that it’s a place you should be able to come to and feel safe,” she said.

Concerned Communities

The church courtyard is also a place where Julie Turner, a social worker, often meets with her clients. Many of them are Street Sense vendors.

Turner has noticed that during the week, when there are many people around, K2 is not a problem. But on Sundays people take advantage of the lighter foot traffic and averted attention.

Ronald, who comes to the Welcome Table breakfasts on most Sunday’s, is also concerned about the rise in K2’s prevalence. “It can turn people zombie-like. I saw someone start to walk across the road [who was high on K2], and they just froze in the middle of the road.”

Ronald isn’t the only Welcome Table guest who is wary. Turner says many Street Sense vendors and people who go to the Sunday programs worry that the drug presence will cause the programs to be shut down.

“It’s not Street Sense vendors who are using and selling [K2] outside. Street Sense vendors are very protective of Street Sense. And we can recognize most of the people who come to Welcome Table.” Turner said. “These are new people that we don’t recognize [who are bringing drugs to the courtyard].”

Concern extends beyond a program shutdown and into matters of health, however.  It appears that several people, including regulars of Welcome Table, have unknowingly taken K2, convinced that it was something else.

“We have seen our people under the influence of K2 and we were disappointed at first,” Gardner said. “But even the police who came that are familiar with some of the folks said the same thing…they knew these people were clean. It seemed to be a mistake.”

A Deeply-Rooted Symptom

“It’s a symptom of a greater need,” said Ken Martin, in reference to homelessness.

For many users in the homeless community, the drug is a form of escape. A Street Sense vendor — in an effort to share why people would use such a harmful drug — said, “No one cares about them and they want to get out of their situation. For some amount of time after they’ve taken [the drug], they have no worries.”

That’s why the People for Fairness Coalition (PFFC) has taken this rising epidemic as an opportunity to educate homeless individuals about the effects of synthetic drugs, noting that substance abuse education is a critical aspect of ending homelessness.

“Folks get into survival mode and think that their lives don’t matter. Homelessness really is depressing, and they medicate themselves. When they find something cheap to medicate themselves, that’s even better,” said Robert Warren, co-founder of PFFC. “. But we got to let them know that we’re watching out for them and they’re doing more harm than good.”

Warren and PFFC have begun to ramp up the outreach they’re doing concerning synthetic drugs. While PFFC has oriented its focus to low-barrier shelters–where they hope to host discussion groups–members have been working diligently to pass out flyers and fact sheets at shelters across the District.

They are also working with the Department of Human Services (DHS) to find a supportive place for people suffering from the effects of synthetic drugs can go and be monitored. Currently, many users wander into day centers. But with the knowledge of the psychotic effects that K2 can have, staff worries that they are putting both themselves and others in danger.

“[Outreach] is our main goal. We want to be a face that folks can recognize, faces in the community that folks can relate to, even folks who may have engaged in [synthetic drugs], but got away,” said Warren. “We’ve got to have people with lived experiences mentoring others in the community.

Looking Up

Since Church of the Epiphany engaged with the MPD, the K2 problem on church grounds has settled down. While it’s still a long, uphill battle, there was not a single crisis at the most recent Sunday service.

“Things were much better,” Gardner said.

However, she cannot let her guard down and continues to think about the best ways she can manage issues such as these at her church. For now, Gardner takes each incident case-by-case.

“I can only hope that God works through me to identify the problem, find a solution. It is easy to judge others, but that’s not what the Bible says,” Gardner explained. “We have to help others. We can’t just observe.”


*Name has been changed.