NEW HAVEN, Connecticut — In a makeshift clinic on a shaded corner of New Haven Green, a group of first responders broke a somber huddle to run to a man who was suddenly flailing and rolling on the grass.
In what's become routine procedure, they checked his pulse and blood pressure and then loaded him into an ambulance to be transported to an area hospital. The man was one of 17 who dropped on Thursday, and one of over 100 overdoses since a mysterious batch of K2, or “spice,” hit the sprawling green on the edge of the Yale campus on Wednesday.
Shortly after an ambulance carted the man away and first responders began to return to their respective places in the park, another man stumbled across the lawn and passed out, spurring the same macabre routine.
“This is kind of the epicenter,” said Rick Fontana, the city’s director of the office of emergency operations, standing by the ambulances idling on the green, which draws a daily mix of homeless, transients, moms pushing strollers, and students passing through. “It’s not often that you see this magnitude of responders running in so many different directions.”
Much of the city’s emergency services have been focused on the park since Wednesday, when one person after another began overdosing on the lawn after smoking K2. Emergency responders raced to more than 70 calls in the first 24 hours, generating headlines across the country.
At first, responders thought that the potent synthetic opioid fentanyl might be to blame. But the overdose antidote naloxone wasn’t reviving anyone. Instead, it looked a lot more like “spice” or K2, the street names for the ultra-cheap, illegal plant substances sprayed with chemicals that contain synthetic cannabinoids.
Read: What you need to know about tianeptine, the unapproved anti-depressant that’s poisoning some people
New Haven police have reportedly arrested three people in connection with the overdoses. And two men, Felix Melendez and John Parker, were arraigned in a state court Thursday on charges relating to handling and possessing the synthetic drug, according to the Hartford Courant, although it wasn't clear whether the drugs they had resulted in the overdoses in New Haven. Agents with the Drug Enforcement Administration in New York confirmed that at least one victim had smoked a pure synthetic cannabinoid.
Jim Carroll, President Trump’s nominee for drug czar, or head of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, is set to come to New Haven on Monday, according to New Haven Mayor Toni Harp.
“I’d call it an advanced form of K2. The compounds have changed structure”
Virulent forms of K2 have been spreading across the country since the spring, with dangerous varieties reported in Chicago, New York City, and D.C. In May, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention launched a health advisory concerning what it called a “multi-state outbreak.”
“I’d call it an advanced form of K2,” said Robert Middleberg, laboratory director at NMS Labs near Philadelphia, one of the premier toxicology labs in the country. “The compounds have changed structure. The ones that were used early on, while they had some of that profile, they weren’t as bad.”
The synthetic drugs are often falsely marketed as a legal alternative to marijuana, but the effects are much different. The ingredients are constantly changing in an effort to skirt drug laws, and, depending on the batch, synthetic cannabinoids can cause a spike in blood pressure, seizures, kidney damage, vomiting, and more, according to the DEA.
“They make new compounds to try to circumvent the law, and there’s often disastrous results,” Middleberg said.
Samantha McGilton, 28, a double-amputee who uses a wheelchair, told VICE News this was very different than the K2 she’d smoked in the past, the stuff sold in pouches at bodegas or convenience stores with goofy names like “Judgement Day.” In South Carolina, where she’s originally from, she said, “It’s just like weed.”
“Here,” she said, “it’s an epidemic. There has to be a chemist who is changing the original formula.”
She tried a hit a few weeks back and said it gave her an immense feeling of anxiety. “I’m afraid it’s going to mess people up,” she said.
Others lounging at the park — many of whom declined to be named in interviews with VICE News — showed pictures of the chaos from the day before. One woman had a photo of a man lying face-down on the ground. Many blamed the many nearby bus stops that bring hoards of people from other cities for the epidemic.
Others said it was the proximity of two nearby methadone clinics, since synthetic cannabinoids don’t show up on drug tests. “All the K2 smokers are homeless,” said Catherine Brantley, a 53-year-old sitting on a bench near the busses on Chapel Street. “The mayor of New Haven isn’t doing a damn thing.”
Cover: An ambulance crew responds to one of three simultaneous drug overdose victims on the New Haven Green, a city park in New Haven, Conn., Thursday, Aug. 16, 2018. (Brian A. Pounds/Hearst Connecticut Media via AP)