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Can the NYPD Actually Do Anything About Synthetic Marijuana?

It's starting to seem like city cops are taking synthetic weed seriously, and perhaps even conducting a bonafide crackdown. But changing attitudes and policies on regular weed are complicating the situation.

A regular synthetic marijuana smoker brandishes the "Green Giant" variety in Harlem, where cops have made two recent busts. Photo by Edwin Torres

On July 20, New York Police Department top brass discussed the growing problem of synthetic marijuana, also known as K2. Although several iterations of the drug were banned by at the state level in 2012, a new generation of chemicals has apparently hit the streets this summer, causing a rash of hospital room visits and overdoses, particularly in Central Brooklyn, Harlem, and Upper Manhattan.

Police Commissioner William Bratton has reportedly told officers to be on the lookout for users of the drug. "Many people have a tremendously adverse reaction to that where they really go totally crazy and have incredible physical strength (and) are impervious to physical pain," he said last week. A bulletin was circulated that instructed cops to use stun guns if necessary and to avoid subjecting smokers to flashing lights and sirens, lest they become more agitated.


It's starting to seem like city cops are taking synthetic weed seriously, and perhaps even conducting a bonafide crackdown. In the past three weeks, two bodegas in Harlem have been busted for selling the stuff (the most recent included the seizure of some Viagra pills).

"These drugs have no place in our communities—period," said City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, who requested the operation, in a statement. "Synthetic cannabinoids are highly dangerous and I want to thank Commissioner Bratton, the NYPD, the NYC Sheriff's Office, the Department of Consumer Affairs and the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene for their swift response to the community's concerns. This operation was the culmination of many months of coordination and is a clear example of how we're continuing to build bridges between the NYPD and the communities they serve."

But experts say that making synthetic weed the new cornerstone of broken windows policing—much like regular ol' weed was back in the day—is complicated by a culture and legal system that's increasingly tolerant of drug use.

One of Mayor Bill de Blasio's major reforms during his first year in office was making possession of a small amount of regular marijuana punishable with a summons rather than an arrest. But Joseph Giacalone, a retired NYPD detective sergeant who now teaches at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in Manhattan, argues that it's difficult to tell the difference between real and fake pot in the field—and that police officers, who are none too pleased with de Blasio's weed policy, are not bothering to approach people who are smoking either drug.


"Why make an arrest for something they're not gonna prosecute?" Giacalone told me, adding that increased public scrutiny of law enforcement in a year defined by police brutality means officers are reluctant to get involved with people who might die in their custody.

"The way things are going in New York City, cops are just throwing up their hands at everything. If something bad happens, they're the ones getting prosecuted. They're damned if they do, damned if they don't," Giacalone said.

At first brush, the rhetoric surrounding the latest designer drug sounds like some fresh propaganda in the war on drugs. But unlike the salvia craze of years past, or the kratom one that's currently percolating, an increase in synthetic marijuana use is demonstrably dangerous—and not just for the people experiencing its psychotropic and physiological effects.

For instance: City hospitals are reportedly getting hundreds of emergency room visits per week from people using K2, which can be purchased for as little as $5 in stores and as little as a buck on the street. As VICE recently reported, those calls slow down response times for paramedics and EMTs, which can be a matter of life or death in some cases. (An NYPD spokesman told us that in general, an officer who sees a person using is legally required to confiscate that drug and send it to a lab to see if it contains one of the banned cannabinoids. The NYPD did not immediately respond to a request for comment Wednesday about whether there's a fresh crackdown afoot.)

So the high-profile busts aside, we're left with something of a catch-22, where shifting opinions about recreational drug use may be leading to an actually dangerous drug use getting lax treatment. Although we're no longer clogging up the criminal justice system with people who were caught with pot—or at least not to the same extent—NYC's emergency rooms are now being clogged by people smoking an extremely potent drug.

Still, Eugene O'Donnell, a retired Brooklyn cop and prosecutor, thinks that arresting people for drug use is pretty much never the solution. He adds that the least-intrusive form of enforcement is the most advisable, pointing to education and awareness as the smartest ways to curb abuse.

"You'll always have people thinking drugs are terrible and others thinking, 'Why are you getting involved with this?'" he told me. "There's gonna be tension throughout this whole situation."

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