If you haven’t heard of K2, consider yourself lucky.
The drug—also called “synthetic marijuana” and “spice”—is wreaking havoc across America, where the lethal high has sent people “surfing” on top of the subway and plunging to their deaths in the Hudson River. Made up of a mixture of herbs, K2 is sprayed with synthetic cannabinoids that are untested on humans. The hallucinogen has sent more than 5,000 people to poison control centers already this year.
Use of the drug has been skyrocketing since 2011, bringing with it horrific scenes of psychotic breaks, suicide, and murder. This week the focus is on New York City, where the NYPD released two tapes of people allegedly high on K2/Spice. One shows a homeless man naked on all fours howling at a car; the other, a man breaking through a wooden fence (Gothamist later discovered it’s actually a man on PCP, from an episode of Cops in 2003).
NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton held a press conference to discuss the drug, which has been making the rounds through the homeless population of NYC. Bratton, who said he’s concerned about the potential for overdose and death, dubbed it “weaponized” marijuana. “A number of individuals, when under the influence of this drug, are relatively impervious to pain and also have significant enhancement of their physical strength,” he said. Adding later: “You’re going to see much more of it in the short term.”
Sold at gas stations and smoke shops for as little as $5, K2 is packaged with words like “all natural” and “not for human consumption.” The latter is a transparent warning meant to keep law enforcement away, but widely ignored by those using it. In response to the increased use several years ago, the Drug Enforcement Administration placed five of the cannabinoids on the Schedule I substance list. But those consuming any other type than the regulated five are, technically, using something that’s legal.
Attracting young teens and homeless people alike, the high that comes with the mixture of herbs is lethal. Side effects include paranoid delusions, racing heartbeat, disorganized thoughts, severe agitation, assaultive behavior, suicidal ideation, and catatonia, among others. A 2013 study from the American Academy of Addiction Psychology coined the term “spiceophrenia,” to describe the high.
One of the most severe cases came in 2014, when nearly 120 people in Texas overdosed on the drug in a single week. A similar outbreak occurred in Louisiana, where hospitals in Baton Rouge saw more than 110 patients in a single month. This May through July, a hospital in Austin, Texas, received more than 439 calls to report exposure to K2.
Many of the incidents are isolated, like the 2014 case of Connor Eckhardt, a 19-year-old in California who died after one hit of K2 sent him into a coma. Or, more recently, the 23-year-old in New York who jumped off a pier in the West Village and drowned.
To spread awareness about the drug’s dangers, Eckhart’s parents launched a social media campaign, posting pictures of him unconscious in a hospital bed. “This is our son, Connor Reid Eckhardt. He made the deadly choice to use a product called K2, or spice, and is completely brain-dead,” reads the Facebook page. “This is not a game, it is totally real, please help us fight his fight.”
Research on the clinical effects of K2 have poked holes in claims that the drug is closely related to real marijuana—so much so that the nickname “synthetic marijuana” has started to fade. While both marijuana and K2 bind to the CB receptor in the brain, they do so with a different chemical. In marijuana, the active ingredient is naturally-occurring THC; in K2, it’s a synthetic—and far more powerful. Experts estimate that K2’s potency to be up 100 times stronger than THC’s.
Due to these disparities, many consider K2’s nickname “synthetic marijuana” to be a misnomer—one that damages real marijuana’s image.
“Clinically, they just don’t look like people who smoke marijuana,” said Dr. Lewis Nelson of NYU’s Department of Emergency Medicine, Division of Medical Toxicology. “Pot users are usually interactive, mellow, funny. Every once in a while we see a bad trip with natural marijuana. But it goes away quickly. With people using synthetic, they look like people who are using amphetamines: they’re angry, sweaty, agitated.”
With new cannabinoids being developed each day, the K2 problem is a moving target for the federal government. Science, too, is struggling to keep up the ever-changing mix of cannabinoids in the drug. Until it’s clear what it is, and how we can stop its use, anecdotal evidence leaves us with an important message: it’s terrifying.