Stand outside the emergency-room entrance to Kings County Hospital Center in Brooklyn any day of the week and you'll see them. Sometimes alone, but more often in pairs, they get rolled through the sliding glass door and parked in the air-conditioned lobby with their mouths agape and gazes frozen somewhere in the middle distance, like some terrifying figures that sprang from Goya's brush.
On a recent Wednesday, a young Hispanic paramedic showed up with a middle-aged, unresponsive woman wearing a tie-dye shirt. Although he couldn't be sure, he'd put money on the fact that she'd been smoking K2—what people in Brooklyn call synthetic marijuana, although it's known elsewhere as spice or spike.
"More times than most it's a guessing thing, but nine out of ten times when they sober up, they'll tell you they were smoking K2," the medic told me. "And sometimes they're ashamed to admit it, but we know what it is."
Patients smoking the stuff can exhibit mild symptoms like cramps and vomiting, but the drug is also capable of pushing people to polar extremes from catatonia to epilepsy, sometimes all in the same trip. The medic told me that, in the first case he dealt with, a guy went "from zero to sixty" and leapt up from unconsciousness to start pounding on the floor like a maniac. In fact, the unpredictability of the user's response is part of why K2, which can be obtained for as little as a dollar, is so terrifying.
And even though a few iterations of the drug were classified as Schedule I—just like weed, LSD, and heroin—by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) in 2011, and even though dozens of synthetic drugs were banned by New York State a year later, every day is the same story at Kings County. Ambulances drive in and out, sometimes carrying the same patient inside more than once during a given shift. Just before the medic I spoke to helped wheel in the woman in tie-dye, they hauled in her smoking partner. It was the third time he'd been there that day, and it wasn't even noon.
"Just another day in the office," the medic told me grimly.
Records obtained by VICE show that early July day was no fluke. The New York Times Magazine recently reported that one day this spring, the city of Syracuse, in upstate New York, saw 19 overdoses, "more in one day in Syracuse than the number of overdoses reported statewide in most states for all of April." But on a randomly picked Sunday—June 27—there were more than a dozen calls related to K2 from a single homeless shelter in Brooklyn located at 681 Clarkson Avenue. First responders say that sometimes the number is up to 40 patients per day at just a handful of local shelters, and that the resulting backlog can be the difference between life and death.
Kings County Hospital Center in Brooklyn regularly sees many K2 cases. All photos by Edwin Torres
"It's insane," said one EMT I met outside of Kings County. "I'm spending my entire tour over at the shelter. But it makes sense, because for five or six bucks you can roll four or five big blunts of this stuff. And the stronger they make it, the more the disenfranchised population is gonna be attracted to it."
A recent surge in abuse caused Governor Andrew Cuomo to issue a public health alert in April, but it's also put EMTs, firefighters, hospital workers, and paramedics in the strange position of needing to improvise police work. People working those jobs say that city-run hospitals have no official policy on confiscating synthetic weed, meaning patients actually get their drugs returned to them when they check out—which helps explain how some of them end up there repeatedly in one day.
Watch our documentary about spice addicts in the UK:
The theory behind "broken windows" policing is that targeting small crimes prevents larger ones. And given the NYPD's past record of cracking down on graffiti, turnstile jumping, public urination, and public drunkenness in the name of public safety, it would stand to reason that they'd be all over K2. But every day, scores ingest a dangerous drug in public as wary parents in East Flatbush try to shuffle their kids past groups of men who could get violent at any second.
"If I picked up a drunk who had a bottle of shitty vodka, I'd pour it out," the Brooklyn EMT told me. "But when a hospital worker finds a packet of K2 in someone's pocket, they give it back to them with their wallet.
"It creates a deep central nervous system disconnect the same way PCP or ketamine does," he continued. "You're outside of your head. You don't have to feel emotions or pain and all those kinds of things. The majority of these shelters don't have programs for these guys, they don't have activities, so this is what they do all day.
"They're like zombies," the young paramedic added. "If you walk around the outside of it, it's like The Walking Dead."
K2 smokers in front of a pharmacy along Clarkson Avenue in Brooklyn
"Outside of it" is a thin strip of dirt littered with Bud Ice bottle caps, coke baggies, and pigeons pecking at dog shit. It's where the men who live inside the Clarkson Avenue shelter congregate. On a recent Sunday morning, two of them sat there drinking their shelter-issued juice boxes and waited for the day to unfold.
One of them called himself Czar. Sitting on a milk crate, he explained to me how he makes a meager living: Every day, he walks a block down the street to one of two bodegas where he picks up as many $5 bags of K2 as he can afford. Then he sits in front of 681 Clarkson and rolls them up into "sticks," which he sells for a dollar a pop.
The other man, called Bless, sported a pineapple-shaped mass of hair, an orange goatee, and a litany of face tattoos, including the name of his dead brother and a tropical flower. The 22-year-old had only been at 681 Clarkson for a week and a half, and, leaning up against the shelter's fence, he told me the extent of K2 use there was "ridiculous" and unlike anything he'd seen in years of homelessness.
A man calling himself "G" brandishes a packet of a synthetic weed called Geeked.
"I only take three pulls," he said. "I don't do that shit. All the K2 smokers sleep on the ground out here and jerk each other off. No one here cares about getting better."
Synthetic marijuana was first created by a Clemson University researcher on a government grant. Starting in 1984, John W. Huffman spent a decade and $2.5 million creating more than 500 cannabinoids that riffed on THC, the active component in marijuana. In 1994, one of his students came up with JWH-018—which Huffman lent his initials to—and it started appearing in European head shops soon after.
It was sort of a Frankenstein creation—and like Frankenstein's monster, it quickly got out of control.
"I figured that somewhere along the line, some enterprising individual would try to smoke it," Huffman told ABC News in 2011. "They're playing Russian roulette. I mean, it's just like taking a pistol with one bullet in it and spinning the chamber and holding it to your head and pulling the trigger."
In June 2010, an 18-year-old kid from Iowa named David Rozga literally did pull the trigger—he killed himself with a shotgun after smoking K2 and complaining that he "felt like he was in hell," according to his father. After a public outcry, the DEA used emergency powers to ban five chemicals typically found in legal weed, including JWH-018. They became permanently scheduled on March 1, 2011.
"Now there's all kinds of throw-up of chemical names that would make your chemistry teacher proud if you could pronounce them properly," DEA Special Agent Eduardo Chavez told me. "There are dozens of chemicals that fall under what might be considered synthetic marijuana or cannabinoids."
Chavez added that because the formula for fake weed is always shifting, there are no field tests yet for it. So while police officers can seize what they suspect are illegal drugs, they would have to conduct a time-consuming lab test to determine what chemicals they contain.
"It's not like cocaine or heroin or meth test kits that people have on hand, like you see on Cops, where they put it on the hood of their car, shake it, and it turns purple," Chavez said. "We can seize it and take it, but oftentimes we withhold charges until we can test it and confer with the prosecutor's office."
But it's only this summer that K2 has very clearly become the drug of choice among the most marginalized members of society. On June 5, at least seven homeless people overdosed on K2 at the largest shelter in Washington, DC, and officials said they suspected a dangerous batch had come in from New York, the Washington Post reported.
Between May 29 and July 18, Travis County—home of Austin, Texas—saw 562 K2 patients. On July 23, a local news station in Austin reported that students around the University of Texas were complaining to local law enforcement that an area near campus had almost become too dangerous to traverse thanks to homeless people using K2 right in the open.
Although the New York City Department of Homeless Services told me in an email that "providers are constantly monitoring shelters for K2 usage" and that users aren't allowed to stay there, anyone with eyes could see that the dirt patch around the shelter has become an open market for different varieties of K2 and that people in the throes of its effects are stumbling around its perimeter.
As a stout, grizzled, middle-aged black man walked up to Czar looking to score on the day I visited him, Bless mocked the customer. "How does smoking K2 make you feel?" he asked.
"It's my second resort to getting lost," the man replied as Czar rolled up a stick and collected his dollar. By then, four other men had shown up, and one started playing Lil Wayne from a tiny boom box.
K2 is also a presence in Harlem. Here, one user rolls up the Green Giant variety.
The 29-year-old K2 dealer—who wore an inside-out orange shirt, has a saber-toothed tiger tattooed on his neck, and looks a decade younger than his age—explained that there are four kinds of K2 popular around the shelter. "Extreme, Smacked, and Green Giant are the three safer ones," he said. "The scary one is Flamingo. They say the doctors out here don't know what it is."
I handed over a crumpled dollar in return for a very loosely rolled stick of Extreme. Just then, a 31-year-old named Malik Miller came over to warn me away from smoking it. He said he got hooked on K2 in 2012 when his mom committed suicide, but soon found himself addicted to a drug that made him act erratically and eventually drove him away from the rest of his family.
"I had a falling out with my wife, and she didn't want me back because she said I smoke K2," he explained. "She knows everything about me. There's nothing like my wife. I fucked up my whole life." But even though it destroyed his relationship, Miller kept on smoking the stuff—until he saw a video of himself on it and had a this-is-your-brain-on-drugs moment.
Malik pulled out an LG cellphone with a cracked screen and showed me footage of him inside the shelter bathroom with the upper half of his body inside the sink. He had one shoe on and looked awfully close to dead. "I'm completely, completely gone," he narrated as we watched the video, which might as well have been a still image.
As he detailed how the drug derailed his life, Bless sidled up and kept asking when the stick I bought was going to be passed around. When he wouldn't stop bugging me to the point of it becoming more than a little intimidating, I handed it over.
"You're just gonna give away a dollar like that?" he asked in disbelief, laughing at his luck as he lit up and proceeded to smoke the entire thing to the face.
"I think it just has tons and tons of crap in it." —Professor Marcel Roberts
All of the people I met who hang out outside of 681 Clarkson asked me two questions, one literal and one rhetorical: Did I know what was in the stuff they were smoking, and why couldn't they just smoke marijuana instead?
An entrance to the 681 Clarkson Avenue Shelter in Brooklyn
To figure out the former, I visited Marcel Roberts, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in Manhattan who focuses on the chemistry of synthetic drugs and explosives. Even though Bless inhaled the K2 I planned on getting tested, I still had a five-gram green packet labeled "Smacked" an EMT told me fell out of the pocket of a guy who was having a seizure.
This brand of K2 smells like lemon-lime Gatorade and comes in a package featuring a zombified, frog-like figure completely stoned out of its mind.
On a Tuesday afternoon, Roberts put some of the leafy substance into a two-inch test tube and added some methanol so it steeped like tea. After running it though a gas chromatography–mass spectrometry (GC-MS) machine—basically a giant oven that slowly increases in temperature, thereby separating each of the chemical components in the drug—he was able to discern what, exactly, Brooklyn's homeless are smoking on the regular.
The only organic material present in the sample we analyzed was Clausena lansium, a plant native to Southeast Asia, but when it came to the stuff that's actually getting people high, the professor ran into some trouble.
"I think it just has tons and tons of crap in it," he explained as he went over the results, which looked like they came from a hospital bedside EKG machine. Each peak on the graph represented a different compound, and they were almost uncountable. However, the most prominent—which is to say the most well-represented chemical in the mix—was very, very similar to JWH-018, one of the first synthetic drugs banned by the DEA.
In fact, the only key difference between that banned substance and this one was the presence of some additional chemicals that are virtually certain not to affect the user's experience, according to Roberts. Still, the package says on the back that it doesn't contain JWH-018.
The ability of even the most amateur of chemists to add superfluous stuff to cannabinoids is why it's almost impossible to regulate these substances: People can just tweak whatever formula they're using soon as it's made illegal.
"The chemistry happens so quickly, it's impossible to keep up," Roberts said. "[The drugs] are modified somewhere where it won't affect their function, but it will affect their legal status in terms of it being restricted or illegal."
So, to answer the homeless shelter residents' first question: The kind of K2 that's hitting the streets and filling up hospital beds in 2015 is pretty much the same kind that's been causing a media freakout for the past half-decade.
As for their second question: If they were smoking marijuana, these guys would probably be ticketed. And as it stands, it seems like no one is policing use of this more dangerous drug by the homeless. A spokesperson for the NYPD told me that an officer who sees someone using is legally required to confiscate that drug and send it to a lab to see if it contains one of the banned cannabinoids. However, it's fairly clear the cops aren't making it a priority—at least not in East Flatbush. A spokesperson for the FDNY told me they defer to law enforcement when it comes to confiscating narcotics.
Ian Michaels, director of media relations for NYC's Health and Hospitals Corporation, did not know offhand the policy for city hospital workers when it came to confiscating K2. "That's a good question. I have no idea," he said over the phone. "Do we confiscate, or do we give it back?" Michaels said he would find out the official policy but subsequently stopped returning calls.
Until something changes, the cycle will inevitably continue: Get up, smoke a couple of sticks, fall out, wake up in the hospital, and repeat. And as the temperatures soar in August, so, too, will the number of patients.
"The hotter it is out there, the more it affects their stamina," the Brooklyn EMT told me as we scanned the perimeter of 681 Clarkson. "There are three guys out there on the corner on the verge of passing out. You can crank it up another ten, 15 degrees, and those are my next three patients."
Follow Allie Conti on Twitter.