The scene in Brooklyn's Bed-Stuy neighborhood on Tuesday afternoon resembled something from a bad horror movie. Dozens of people were seen convulsing, lying on the sidewalk, doubled over fire hydrants, and stuck frozen and contorted in strange positions. One bystander described it as "Zombieland."
The small-scale zombie apocalypse was reportedly caused by the drug K2, the most common street name for synthetic marijuana. At least 33 people in Bed-Stuy's Myrtle-Broadway area — a noisy intersection in the sprawling Brooklyn neighborhood, where trains constantly rattle over the elevated railway — were hospitalized after apparent overdoses.
K2 — also sold under an array of other names, including Spice, Green Giant, and iBlown — is basically potpourri that's been sprayed with chemicals designed to mimic the effects of marijuana. The drug is very cheap, typically selling for around $1 per joint, but because manufacturers are constantly tweaking its chemical makeup to skirt US drug laws, the effects vary widely from batch to batch.
Brooklyn resident Brian Arthur encountered Tuesday's scene on his way home from work and broadcast what he saw on Facebook Live. One video showed a man sitting on the ground on Broadway in handcuffs, shaking uncontrollably and screaming, "It's burning me!"
"This is crazy, this is crazy," Arthur says to the camera. "This is freakin bananas right now. People just walking around. Zombies. They're just out of it."
Emergency workers visited homeless shelters and methadone clinics in the area to warn people about the "bad batch" of K2 that was on the market.
An investigation last summer by VICE's Allie Conti explored how the drug ravages New York's homeless population. She visited one homeless shelter in Brooklyn that placed more than a dozen emergency calls related to K2 consumption in just one day. In 2015, there were more than 6,000 K2-related visits to New York City's emergency rooms. Two people died.
This isn't the first time a "bad batch" of K2 has caused mass overdoses, either. Last spring, there were 19 K2 overdoses on one day in Syracuse, New York. At least a dozen people were hospitalized in March in St Petersburg, Florida with "seizure-like symptoms, vomiting and fainting" after smoking the drug. In April in Los Angeles, 10 people from the city's Skid Row were taken to hospital for suspected K2 overdoses. "They were passing out like dominoes," one man told the Los Angeles Times.
Police and lawmakers have attempted to crack down on K2 sales, but many compounds used in the drug have not yet been outlawed. It is still sold in some New York City bodegas, though store owners often keep the packages hidden behind the counter to avoid scrutiny.
Watch the VICE News documentary The Dangerous Rise of K2: America's Cheapest High: