On Wednesday, State Senator Jeff Klein gathered a small group of reporters and community leaders in the Bronx to let them know he's got a solution to a problem no one else is quite sure how to solve. Standing outside of the Jacobi Medical Center in front of a lectern and next to a poster-board that looked like it belonged at an eighth-grade science fair, the Democrat* laid out a three-pronged strategy to combat the synthetic cannabinoid (a.k.a. K2) epidemic plaguing NYC.
"The Bronx is becoming the K2 capital of New York City," Klein said in a statement. "At least ten patients a week are rushed through the emergency room at Jacobi Hospital displaying frightening, erratic behavior associated with K2 use. I'm introducing legislation to keep ahead of the chemists' curve and criminalize all analogous chemicals put into these colorful K2 packets."
It's probably a stretch to argue that the Bronx, which Klein represents in the state legislature, is the epicenter of the epidemic. A July report by the New York Times Magazine showed that the upstate New York city of Syracuse recently experienced 19 overdoses in one day. Similarly, my recent story for VICE showed that in Central Brooklyn, where the drug can be obtained for as little as $1, homeless people abuse it to the point that some EMTs are shuttling the same abusers back and forth between city hospitals and shelters all day long.
But the press conference suggests that the powers that be are making the issue a priority. Klein's proposal emerged just a week after NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton started referring to the chemicals as "weaponized weed" and not long after City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito called for busts at Harlem bodegas. While actual marijuana is not present in these products, Bratton's language—which has also included dire warnings about how the superhuman strength of K2 users means normal cops' normal takedown tactics might not be effective—suggests the NYPD is trying to tackle this public health crisis.
Right now, selling synthetic cannabinoids—a violation rather than a felony—will get you a slap in the wrist, like a $500 fine, according to Klein. Under legislation he plans to propose in Albany's next legislative session, selling fake "marijuana" would be criminalized under the penal code—just like selling actual pot—and dealers would face fines of $2,000 for a first violation, $5,000 for a second violation, and a termination of their license after a third strike.
Klein also wants to make sure every NYPD officer has field testing kits, although it's unclear how those would work given that the biggest problem with synthetic cannabinoids is that the formula for them is constantly changing.
After Klein went over his plan, fellow politicians, a couple of doctors, and members of the community took the mic. A few of the speeches undeniably took on a pearl-clutching think-of-the-children tone. "This drug is a gateway drug," explained Assemblyman Mark Gjonaj. "It's misleading and it affects our most vulnerable—our children." He pointed to pictures of a packet of "Smacked!" a brand of synthetic marijuana that features a bugged-out cartoon frog on the front, suggesting that it's sold to kids like candy.
This isn't the first time a freakout over this designer drug has reached Reefer Madness levels of absurdity. Back when Bratton went on his "weaponized weed" tear, he showed a video of a naked man, supposedly on K2, bursting through a fence, Kool-Aid Man style. But as Gothamist later reported, the clip was actually from a very old episode of COPS, and depicted someone in the throes of a legit PCP freakout.
Klein mostly avoided that kind of alarmism on Wednesday. Besides talking about the effect the drug was having on the community, and how it could be obtained by kids, he emphasized that his office had identified 24 bodegas in the Bronx that were currently selling it. He did have a video offering of his own, however.
"As they say, a picture is worth 1,000 words," Klein said as he wrapped up the conference. "Go to the video."
Video via Senator Klein's office
In the clip, which was filmed on August 7, an undercover member of Klein's staff is able to obtain five bags of synthetic marijuana from a bodega and even cut a deal in the process. "You're my man," the spy tells the clerk as he walks away with 25 grams worth of the worst drug in the world for just $25. "Thank you. I appreciate it."
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*Correction 8/18: Because of an editing error, an earlier version of this post suggested Klein switched party affiliations, when in fact he has remained a Democrat while caucusing with the Independent Democratic Conference.