Emergency anti-K2 legislation recently passed by the D.C. Council and signed by Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) expands the definition of synthetic cannabinoids and reinstates expired enforcement policy, part of an effort to curb an ongoing epidemic affecting areas east of Rock Creek Park.

Activists on the front lines against K2, frustrated by the store owners they say continue to sell the cheap and deadly substance with impunity, welcome the institutional support but remain skeptical of the city’s willingness to target businesses found culpable in some of the more than 1,600 overdose cases that have occurred since June.

“The attorney general would start holding stores accountable, but it’s [still] not adding up,” Robin McKinney, a lifelong Southeast resident and anti-K2 activist, said last month during a community meeting at Check It Enterprises in Anacostia as she explained how police officials wouldn’t reveal the names of local businesses found to be selling synthetic cannabinoids.

Last Wednesday, a day after the council passed the emergency legislation, McKinney, as she has done several times before in the last three months, passed out small zip-close bags filled with snacks, toiletries and literature about K2 to visitors enjoying their evening at Shepherd Parkway, located at the intersection of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X avenues in Congress Heights in Southeast.

Once she parked her car on the street between the park and a nearby gas station, McKinney, wearing a Black shirt with “Kill K2” emblazoned across the back in red letters, took several bags out of her trunk. For nearly 40 minutes, she exchanged pleasantries with men, women and children sitting on benches and walking through the park before giving them information about synthetic cannabinoids and encouraging them to spread the word.

McKinney’s engagement with community members eventually sparked the curiosity of a U.S. Park Police officer who too had been walking through Shepherd Parkway, a National Park Service landmark since 1933. He briefly stopped his on-foot patrol to examine the bags with his flashlight and commend McKinney for her advocacy.

Such a compliment, however, didn’t shift McKinney’s perception of the law enforcement response to K2, which she said has focused more on the perceived nuisance of users who overdose, and less so on the producers and sellers. Shepherd Parkway has been written off as a haven for drug activity rather than a gathering place for families that don’t leave at the sight of police, she said.

As she turned toward the gas station across the street from Shepherd Parkway, where dozens of young men had converged near the store entrance and around the gas pumps, McKinney questioned how store owners allow such pandemonium to continue in front of their establishment.

“Oftentimes, one person owns several stores,” said McKinney, an Anacostia resident and Ballou alumna. “They’re all in cahoots together. We don’t need three or four convenience stores open so close to one another with people outside at all times of the night. You can’t even pump gas here.”

D.C. Council Takes Action

On Oct. 2, all D.C. Council members, with the exception of Trayon White (D-Ward 8), who was absent, voted in favor of the Revised Synthetics Abatement and Full Enforcement Drug Emergency Act of 2018. Bowser, who’d introduced the emergency legislation last month, signed it into law three days later. The law will remain in effect for 90 days.

The latest revised synthetics law built on current legislation that allows Mayor Bowser to suspend or revoke the license of businesses found to be buying or selling synthetic drugs. Through the law, the Metropolitan Police Department could also shut down businesses implicated in the sale of K2 for up to 96 hours.

Per a version of the emergency legislation introduced by Attorney General Karl Racine via Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) in 2017, the substance fentanyl, often found in opioids, has been added to the list of the banned substances alongside cannabinoids and cathinone, also known as bath salts.

K2, often marketed as Spice and Scooby Snax, causes rapid heartbeat, vomiting, agitation and hallucinations. In an attempt to stay ahead of changes to the drug schedule, K2 producers often change their formulas, mixing deadly ingredients not included under the umbrella of banned substances. At less than $5 a joint, K2 has become a viable drug of choice, despite the number of overdoses.

An employee of a local nonprofit near Shepherd Park who experimented with K2 a couple times in 2012 said the substance appealed young people attempting to avoid failing drug tests.

Years after a near-fatal experience that dissuaded her from using synthetic cannabinoids, she has become reacquainted with the substance through her work with youth that like the cheapness of the drug.

“The young man I smoked it with [when I was younger] couldn’t smoke weed because he was connected to the juvenile system,” she said as she recounted the night of paranoia and unease that turned her away from K2 permanently.

“When I came down from my high, I was just happy to be back in my mind,” she added. “I didn’t think anything of it when I tried it. I knew it was a mistake, but back then it wasn’t as prominent. It’s not like how it is now. I told myself I wasn’t going to do it again.”

A Question of Police Accountability

During the summer, a number of overdoses occurred near a homeless shelter located blocks from D.C. Police headquarters in Northwest, where street-level dealers were said to have been selling the product. Other areas of K2 activity included 16th Street and Good Hope Road, and Alabama Avenue near Safeway, both in Southeast, as well Benning Road and Bladensburg Road near Hechinger Mall in Northeast, and North Capitol and P streets.

Corey Knight, an entrepreneur and returning citizen, said seeing the effects of K2 on others pushed him to start the “K2 Ain’t for You” campaign, which focuses on grass-roots education about the deadly effects of the substance.

On a Sunday morning last month, while driving along Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue, Knight passed what he described as four lifeless bodies near the W4 bus stop at Shepherd Parkway. After checking their vitals and calling paramedics, he shared his outrage in a photo that has since been widely circulated on social media platforms.

This weekend, Knight and others will converge on his Southeast office for a “K2 Ain’t You” campaign planning session, where participants will devise strategies around canvassing and assisting K2 addicts with on-the-spot treatment assessment, followed by direct enrollment in a facility.

“You see police parked on the same corner day in and day out, not doing anything about the problem,” said Knight, 49, a youth development coordinator and reentry services provider through the HOPE Foundation Reentry Networks.

Local law enforcement officials share some of the blame in the K2 epidemic due to their lack of empathy for drug addicts, he said.

Knight, also a chef, expressed his hope that U.S. Park officials would install a fence around Shepherd Parkway, build a single entry point, and upgrade the playground and other amenities.

The federal landmark hasn’t been given the same level of treatment as other parks around the city, he said.

Earlier this year, a petition to temporarily close down Shepherd Parkway sparked controversy.

“They’re just waiting for the next person to spaz out, so they can lock them up,” Knight said. “The police just want to do their hours and get off. That’s how I’m looking at part of the policing, when they’re in a red-hot district watching individuals do what they do. That doesn’t happen on Connecticut Avenue, Georgetown, or 14th Street.”

For some members of the community, the answer to holding local businesses accountable don’t lie solely with the Metropolitan Police Department.

Some people, including ANC 8C Chairperson Mary Cuthbert, say that the DC Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA), regardless of what the current anti-K2 law entails, should have the final say.

For the veteran community representative, asking police officers to intervene stretches resources and infringes of business owners’ rights.

“DCRA gave them the license so someone needs to get on top of them,” said Cuthbert, who represents the area that includes Shepherd Parkway. “They’re the ones who authorize people to run businesses. You start there. Just because they’re the police department doesn’t mean they should close down your business.”

Sam P.K. Collins

Sam P.K. Collins has more than a decade of experience as a journalist, columnist and organizer. Sam, a millennial and former editor of WI Bridge, covers education, police brutality, politics, and other...

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