‘New crack’ hurts the homeless – and those serving them

‘New crack’ hurts the homeless – and those serving them

August 26, 2015

A grizzled man with a white-streaked beard collapsed into a heap on the sidewalk. 

“This is the K2 capital of the world, right here,” an FDNY lieutenant said, shaking his head as he called in an ambulance Friday on Lexington Avenue just south of 125th Street.

A small crowd gathered around the man, who stared blankly at the pavement and drooled onto the ground. Four others appeared groggy, and another fidgeted spastically as he paced around the small gathering, nibbling on a soda can.

“I’ve had six or seven ambulances here at one time,” the lieutenant said, scanning the scene and prodding a few of the zombified men. “It’s starting to spread. Park, Lenox, Third Avenue,” he said gesturing to the surrounding streets. 

K2, also known as Spice, is a name for synthetic cannabinoids sold over the counter even though it’s illegal. Law enforcement officials say it has a particularly devastating impact on the mentally ill in the homeless community. As the popularity of the drug has surged, a heavy burden has landed on nonprofits that provide them housing and services. 

Carol Allette, a program director at the Center for Urban Community Services, runs The Kelly, a small building on 127th Street that provides transitional housing for 40 mentally ill homeless adults. She has seen firsthand the damage K2 does to the people she’s trying to help.

“Our goal is to get people back to feeling great about themselves, back to integrating with society,” Allette explained. “And here comes this terrible monster of K2 that literally rips that dream away again.”

K2 is sold at bodegas, smoke shops and retail shops across the state, but Harlem has remained a hotspot, with one strip on Lexington Avenue earning the moniker “K2 Boulevard.”

It has been illegal to sell or possess the drug since 2012. Still, many shops continue to sell the small shiny packets marked as “potpourri” that read, “Not for human consumption.” 

The drug has surged in popularity in recent years, largely because of its availability and low cost. Packages sell for anywhere from $5 to $20 for several grams at the corner stores, and K2 smokers will often sell a joint on the street for just $2.

Health and drug enforcement agencies are struggling to control its spread. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration said the “dangerous and deadly poison” has surged at an “unprecedented” pace and a flurry of legislation has sought to curb its use among vulnerable populations, especially young people.

“I’ve been smoking K2 for four years,” said José, a homeless man who lives at The Kelly. “I found out that marijuana was too expensive,” he said, recalling how he made the switch to K2, a cheaper drug many call “synthetic marijuana,” although experts say the term is a misnomer since its effects can be closer to PCP or angel dust.

“It’s not ‘synthetic weed,’” José said. On the street, the substance has a different name, he said. “They call it the ‘new crack’ in New York.”

“I got a lot of friends that died of K2. Heart attack,” José said. “A couple of puffs. No air. Their heart, it goes so fast, sometimes slow,” he said patting his chest. He says he has lost three friends to K2.

The city’s health department lists serious side effects for the drug, including extreme anxiety, confusion, sedation, paranoia and hallucinations. Synthetic cannabinoids can cause kidney failure, raise blood pressure, reduce blood supply to the heart and cause heart attacks.

“I’ve seen the effects of meth, crack,” said Nikita Price, civil rights organizer at Picture the Homeless. “And this is worse than all of them. I don’t know how anyone can get away with calling it synthetic marijuana, because I’ve never seen marijuana take that kind of effect.”

Price said she saw one K2 user holding a conversation with a car tire. Another used an orange road cone as a megaphone to talk to a fruit vendor. And while those instances sound harmless, the behavioral effects can be dangerous.

Dr. Van Yu, the chief medical officer for Janian Medical Care, has worked on several K2 cases at The Kelly. 

“There’s been more fighting because of K2,” Yu said, noting that staff members have called 911 several times because of aggressive behavior they believe is brought on by the drug.

NYPD Commissioner William Bratton said homeless K2 users are a potential danger to the public, saying a significant number of them are mentally ill and the drug can exacerbate their symptoms.

“It puts them into a state where they are totally crazy,” the commissioner told City & State in a video interview last month. “They have superhuman strength, they are impervious to pain,” he said, and pose an “incredible danger, potentially, to the public.” 

While several homeless services providers agreed that K2 users’ behavior can be disturbing, a bigger concern, they say, is the mischaracterization of the vulnerable people they serve.

“They’re victims, they’re not demons,” said Tony Hannigan, founder of CUCS and a longtime homeless services provider. “When they’re seeing their friends having seizures, winding up in the hospital, they want off,” he said. And this, Hannigan believes, is where organizations should be focusing their efforts. “They want help getting out of the trap. So, where we’re going in our thinking is, that is what we have to do.” He said there should be a continuing effort to provide effective drug treatment for homeless K2 addicts.

Still, this is easier said than done. In an effort to skirt federal drug laws, K2 chemists are constantly changing the brew that is sprayed onto the plants in the packets, which means the drug itself is changing. This complicates both drug treatment and how nonprofits should react to a psychotic episode triggered by K2.

“How do you create protocol to deal with this?” asked Christy Parque, executive director of Homeless Services United. “If the ingredients are changing, if the behaviors change with the person who takes it, it makes it a very, very unsafe situation.” 

Some of her member organizations, including CUCS, are struggling with the effects that the drug has had on their ability achieve their goals.

For example, Allette said that even the smell of K2 on some clients’ clothes has disqualified them during interviews for supportive housing, which has kept people in The Kelly’s transitional program longer than she would hope.

Fewer clients have moved out of The Kelly and into more permanent housing over the last few years. In 2012, The Kelly placed 56 individuals into supportive housing. In 2013 that number fell to 47, and in 2014 it dropped to 45.

The smell has also been a health issue for her staff, she said. The acrid smell on K2 smokers’ clothing has left her and other staff members with persistent headaches and nausea.

José said he tries to keep K2 out of the The Kelly – as the rules require – but fearing where he might end up if he had a bad reaction on the street, he said, “I smoked in my room.” 

He’s trying hard to quit now, he said. But people still ask him, “‘Where’s that K2? Get me that K2,’ they say. I tell them, ‘Sorry, I don’t want to do that no more.’”

But it’s not easy to avoid.

“It gets in the walls, in your clothes, everywhere,” José said. “It’s everywhere.”

Frank Runyeon
Frank G. Runyeon
is City & State’s senior reporter. He covers state politics and investigations.