A few weeks ago at Varner Supermax prison in Arkansas, guards found a 26-year-old inmate unresponsive in his cell. Twenty minutes later at the same facility, another inmate, this time 55-years-old, was also found unresponsive.
By the end of the day, both men were dead.
Three days later, another three inmates at Varner were found unresponsive within 14 hours of each other — and later pronounced dead.
Toxicology tests results released earlier this week finally confirmed prison officials’ suspicions: All five inmates had died from overdosing on synthetic cannabinoids, otherwise known as K2.
The officials had reasons to think that K2 was involved. In the week leading up to the string of deaths — which brought the total number of K2-related fatal overdoses in Arkansas prisons up to 11 so far this year — about a dozen other inmates at Varner had exhibited symptoms of drug-related illnesses, prison officials told the Northwest Arkansas Democrat Gazette. Last year, 13 inmates died from K2 overdoses in Arkansas prisons.
Nonetheless, prison officials insist they have the situation under control.
“What happened last week was an anomaly,” Arkansas Department of Corrections spokesman and legislative liaison Solomon Graves told state lawmakers Tuesday. “And it was an anomaly that we will not tolerate becoming the norm.”
Arkansas isn’t the only state prison system in America grappling with a K2 problem. Earlier this year, an internal audit of rising inmate mortality rates in Florida’s state prison facilities concluded that the uptick was linked, in part, to overdoses on synthetic cannabinoids. At least six inmates in Florida have died due to overdoses on K2 this year, compared to just one the previous year.
In Pennsylvania, all prison facilities are currently on indefinite lockdown after employees said they became sick after being exposed to a mysterious substance, suspected to be synthetic cannabinoids. So far this year in the state, at least one inmate has died from a K2 overdose, according to department spokeswoman Amy Warden.
“Our prisons are not exempt from that. The drugs are getting in.”
Prison officials have long known about the dangers of K2 — and tried to combat its presence in their facilities. For the past year, Arkansas has been using educational tools like fliers and videos, as well as increased presence of drug sniffing dogs. The DEA is also conducting more investigations into K2 in prisons, despite general investigations into the drug down from 60 to 40 percent, according to Melvin Patterson, staff coordinator for congressional and public affairs at the DEA.
In an effort to skirt federal drug regulation or restrictions, however, manufacturers are constantly tweaking the chemical composition of their products. That’s what makes K2 so dangerous — users never know what they’re going to get.
“It’s a crapshoot when you take this stuff,” said Robert Middleberg, laboratory director at NMS labs, which performs about half of all postmortem toxicology tests in the U.S. “An absolute crapshoot.”
Despite the substantial risks, K2 can be an attractive solution to the limitations and stress of prison life. The dissociative effects of drug can cause users to lose their sense of time and temporarily forget where they are. And at around $20 to $30 a gram, or as little as $1 a joint, K2 can also be a cheap escape for inmates who sometimes earn less than a dollar for odd jobs behind bars.
“The Department has seen a significant increase in contraband introduction over the last three years,” Florida Department of Corrections press secretary Patrick Manderfield told VICE News. “Synthetic drugs are relatively cheap, and inmates see it as a profitable form of contraband. Recipes are readily available online, and the department has intercepted homemade versions of it made with household chemicals through inmate mail.”
The drugs’ variety also allows inmates to find increasingly creative ways to smuggle it into facilities. Prison officials told VICE News they suspect that inmates have been receiving letters soaked in a liquid form of K2. On Wednesday, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf halted all mail delivery and paperback books to prisons for the next 90 days.
“We have an epidemic going on in our community and society,” Pennsylvania Department of Corrections communications director Susan McNaughton told VICE News. “Our prisons are not exempt from that. The drugs are getting in.”
Faced with rising numbers of K2-related incidents, Arkansas’ Department of Corrections also implemented a new system last year that copied inmates’ mail, including newspaper clippings, and then forwarded it to recipients. In Florida, all of the nearly 100,000 inmates had to watch an informational video warning of the dangers of synthetic cannabinoids, which has now become mandatory viewing for all new inmates during intake procedures.
The video, shared with VICE News, features testimonials from inmates about negative and even near-death experiences with K2. Shaky cell phone footage featured on the video shows an inmate writhing around on the floor in his own vomit. “I could feel my heart racing, my legs start to shake, and I blacked out,” the inmate, whose face is blurred, says in an interview on the video.
Bad batches of synthetic weed have led to mass overdose situations in the past. Last month at a park in New Haven, Connecticut, at least 76 people were hospitalized within a 24-hour period for overdosing on K2. Witnesses likened the scene to a zombie apocalypse: People were staggering around the park, before dropping to the ground like flies. In that instance, Middleberg said toxicologists suspect that the K2 was laced with the powerful opioid, fentanyl.
But K2 use on its own has rarely resulted in fatalities. In the last year, however, toxicologists have identified increasingly potent and dangerous versions of the drug. Those can cause seizures, heart attacks, frightening hallucinations, and sometimes even death.
“They’ve evolved and seem to be getting more potent,” Middleberg said. “They seem to be manifesting themselves in people in different ways. But what is also happening is that the synthetic cannabinoids are being mixed with other drugs. And the combination seems to be horrendous in many situations.”
Oftentimes, K2 is just chemicals sprayed onto a plant substance and then marketed online or in head shops as potpourri or incense. According to Florida corrections officials, some of the K2 that’s been intercepted in prisons has contained household chemicals, including roach spray, acetone found in nail polish remover, and ammonia. And in April, Illinois public health officials found rat poison in a batch of synthetic cannabinoids linked to an outbreak of severe internal bleeding cases.
From March to the end of August, state health departments reported more than 267 cases of severe internal bleeding from synthetic cannabinoid use across 11 states, leading to seven deaths, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.
“What happens is that this particular rat poison ties up liver enzymes,” Middleberg said. “That way the synthetic cannabinoids go unmetabolized for a longer period of time, which keeps people high for a greater period of time. It’s a stupid compound to use, and people have been bleeding all over the place.”
But it’s hard to say definitively how many people are dying each year from overdoses on synthetic cannabinoids, in part because there’s no centralized tracking system. A spokesperson from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) told VICE News that they don’t conduct routine surveillance on synthetic cannabinoid use, adverse effects, or deaths.
Nor is there a centralized catalog of all the different synthetic cannabinoid compounds that medical examiners’ offices can refer to when they’re trying to determine cause of death. That means that if someone overdoses on a new version of K2, toxicologists won’t always necessarily know because they didn’t have that version catalogued.
There’s also another possible explanation for growing lethality of K2: The supply chain for synthetic cannabinoids has evolved since the drugs first became popular about a decade ago, according to Roy Gerona, director of the clinical toxicology and environmental biomonitoring laboratory at University of California San Francisco. From 2012 to 2017, Gerona partnered with the CDC and the DEA monitor and catalog shifts in K2 manufacturing.
When he first started his research, deaths linked to K2 use were very rare.
“When it first became popular, it was labelled as herbal incense, ordered online, or sold in colorful sachets in convenience stores,” Gerona said. “But starting in 2015, we saw an emergence of this middleman, who had their own illegal manufacturing sites. They’d buy bulk amounts of the drug from the internet, order the dried herbs, and spray it on themselves.”
“But then what happens is they’re misdosing the formula. You don’t have quality control,” he added.