Last week, it was business as usual at convenience stores like Day & Night Deli in Brooklyn's Bed-Stuy neighborhood. Then a video that showed dozens of people staggering zombie-like along the sidewalk and slowly collapsing hit Facebook. That's when the cops and news vans started showing up.
At least 33 people were hospitalized after overdosing on a "bad batch" of synthetic marijuana, a drug commonly known as K2 or Spice. Bodegas near the intersection of Broadway and Myrtle Avenue allegedly sell the illicit drug under the table, but when police raided five stores in the area last Wednesday after the mass overdose, they came up empty handed. Three people were arrested for selling untaxed cigarettes.
Sami al-Zindani, who works at Day & Night, acknowledged that some stores likely do sell K2, but he's adamant that his isn't one of them. "I hear that many people around here sell it, but not me," he said. "People come ask me for it, and it gives me lots of headaches, everyday. I catch people trying to steal things, many of them on K2.
"It's haram," he added, using an Arabic word that means forbidden. "For as long as I've worked here, I've never sold it."
The majority of the bodegas in the area are owned by Yemenis like Zindani, and he is afraid that all of them will now be blamed for the rampant overdoses. A conversation with an employee at a neighboring business suggests his concern is legitimate.
"It's the people in the bodegas, the Arab stores, that are selling it," local tattoo artist Eddie Blanko said of K2. "It's a bullshit way to make fast cash. It's a new era of drugs. It's scary, it's harmful, and it makes the neighborhood look bad."
New York's K2 problem isn't limited to Brooklyn. The drug is cheap — a joint sells for as little $1 — and it has been blamed for more than 6,000 overdoses citywide since 2015, including at least two that were fatal. Mayor Bill de Blasio signed legislation last October to outlaw some of the chemicals used in fake weed, and city officials have vowed to "choke off the K2 pipeline" by aggressively cracking down on suppliers. This year alone, the NYPD has made more than 180 K2-related arrests and seized about 30,000 pounds of the drug.
'People come ask me for it, and it gives me lots of headaches, everyday. I catch people trying to steal things, many of them on K2.'
But despite the crackdown, the K2 remains popular and widely available. Part of the problem is that manufacturers in China and India are constantly tweaking the formula to stay one step ahead of US drug laws. On Monday, New York Senator Chuck Schumer said he plans to introduce legislation to outlaw an additional 22 substances used in K2.
Vendors similarly try to avoid legal trouble by selling K2 in bags marked "not for human consumption." The product typically contains dried, potpourri-like plant matter that has been sprayed with a mix of mystery chemicals, which means the effects and potency of K2 vary widely from batch to batch.
Under current New York law, anyone caught selling K2 faces a misdemeanor charge punishable by up to one year in jail and fines of more than $100,000. Sellers can also face federal prosecution and be evicted from their buildings for being a "public nuisance."
In a statement to VICE News, NYPD Assistant Chief Patrick Conroy said police plan to ramp up their presence in Bed-Stuy to address the K2 situation. "In that neighborhood, in that very specific epicenter, we've executed numerous search warrants, we've made numerous arrests, and we've had numerous teams assigned to address that," he said, adding that extra officers will be stationed in the area for at least the next few weeks.
VICE News visited five Bed-Stuy bodegas in the area where the mass overdose happened last week. Employees at all of them denied selling K2. One store owner became frantic at the mere mention of the drug.
"Never in my life have I sold it — it's not good for us, or our business," said Hafez Mozab, another Yemeni owner. "It can ruin your life and your name. I have a kid, I can't sell that here."
Many Bed-Stuy locals who spoke to VICE News identified Big Boy Deli — located near the entrance to the Myrtle Avenue subway station — as the neighborhood's K2 distribution hub. The business was among those raided by the NYPD last week. Yeyhi Thabet, the son of the deli's owner, was arrested after police found 11 packs of cigarettes without proper tax stamps.
When VICE News visited, Thabet was working behind the counter. He denied selling K2, but declined to answer additional questions about the drug and the raid. In front of him, near the register, was a black and red sign provided by the city. It read: "K2: 0 percent marijuana, 100 percent harmful. No K2 is sold here."
Follow Adam Hamze on Twitter: @adamhamz
Watch the VICE News documentary The Dangerous Rise of K2: America's Cheapest High: