K2, the synthetic cannabinoid (Courtesy of HowStuffWorks.com)
K2, the synthetic cannabinoid (Courtesy of HowStuffWorks.com)

K2, the synthetic cannabinoid that causes hallucinations and paranoia, has the District under siege once again as law enforcement officials and grass-roots activists struggle to close loopholes in current laws amid hundreds of overdoses over the past two weeks.

For some people however, like Ron Moten, the K2 epidemic never stopped. He said the product, over the last two years, has earned a spot among a handful of narcotics that young people and other vulnerable populations in D.C.’s majority-Black, low-income communities use to escape substandard conditions in an economically vibrant city.

“This generation is using K2 for recreation and they’re getting hooked,” Moten said while describing an Aug. 10 event at Check-It Enterprises in Southeast where youth, public health experts and law enforcement officials will discuss the epidemic. “I don’t think we’ve come up with a plan to deal with it.”

In late 2015, amid a similar crisis, Moten and Chis, the frontman of go-go group Takeova Band (TOB), spearheaded an anti-K2 campaign that an album addressing the issue. Other efforts have brought large signs at Metro stations and other public spaces throughout the metropolitan region that feature lifeless beings in a graveyard and warn against the rise of “zombies,” an allusion to the psychotic episodes K2 users often experience.

Moten said that after the initial fervor around K2 waned, manufacturers and local vendors flourished without consequence, setting the stage for recent overdoses among the D.C.’s most vulnerable populations.

“If someone’s using a drug like K2, they’ve given up,” he said. “What can we do about this K2 situation? We got people dying, young and old people using it. All these stores are still selling [K2] and getting away with it.”

A Local and National Epidemic

Local overdose cases parallel similar situations involving K2 and opioids unfolding throughout the United States. In 2004, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention received information about the first sales of synthetic marijuana. More than a decade later, the K2 wave has exploded, even with the passage of legislation and law enforcement efforts.

The D.C. Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, taking note of deaths that have occurred within the same timeframe as recent overdoses, said it is currently investigating possible links to K2.

While they don’t have the same chemical composition as marijuana, synthetic cannabinoids, also known as “Scooby Snax,” “spice,” and “potpourri,” stimulate brain receptors in the same manner, often making them a cheaper and more attractive alternative for users.

Once international manufacturers produce and ship the cannabinoids in liquid form, domestic suppliers spray it on ubiquitous plants and place them in colorful packaging sold in corner stores throughout the District.

In years past, before the Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency for the District of Columbia created drug tests that detected synthetic cannabinoids, ex-offenders wanting to circumvent urinalysis used K2 in place of marijuana. Many of the more than 300 recent overdose cases have involved the homeless, a group that street-level dealers have reportedly solicited at shelters, a spokesperson for the Office of the Attorney General for the District of Columbia (OAG) told The Informer.

Argatonia Weatherington, assistant attorney general in the OAG’s Housing and Community Justice office, said street dealers frequently mix contents of K2 packaging with other poisonous substances.

“They have no idea what’s in these chemical compounds,” Weatherington said. “Users could have all types of complications. For some people, it’s not just cannabinoids.”

Though the OAG has successfully prosecuted cases involving store owners found selling K2 in the aftermath of the 2015 epidemic, Weatherington said merchants have evaded undercover officers by only engaging repeat customers.

Another hurdle for law enforcement officials, she added, involves federal drug scheduling that doesn’t cover the increasingly expansive variety of chemical compounds under which K2 falls. For a distributor, avoiding prosecution requires merely tweaking their formula slightly.

In early July, Attorney General Karl A. Racine and Chief Deputy Attorney General Natalie O. Ludaway testified before the D.C. Council in support of a permanent version of the SAFE DC Act, legislation passed in 2016 that tackled the distribution and use of synthetic cannabinoids by basing inclusion in D.C.’s drug schedule on the class of chemical compounds found in the drug, rather than the name of the drug itself.

“All types of harmful substances have been found in these packages,” Weatherington said. “To shut down a store, K2 would have to be illegal. Stores stopped selling to people they didn’t know in 2012. It’s hard for us to send an investigator.”

Going Directly to the Source

Since video of K2 users lying lifeless in a park on Good Hope Road and Minnesota Avenue in Southeast circulated on social media, Robin McKinney, a Southeast mother of seven and community advocate, has traveled across the District, visiting well-known hotspots and speaking with K2 smokers in an attempt to connect them with drug rehabilitation services.

McKinney, 44, founder of the Opportunities to Inspire and Serve Youth (OTIS) program, said what she has seen and heard over the last couple of weeks revealed the severity of the epidemic.

“The people were so open, and they told me about other locations [where K2 is sold and smoked] like Florida Avenue and near Hechinger Mall,” she said, adding that many of the K2 users she encountered struggled to kick the habit.

“They said they don’t like smoking it,” McKinney said. “They don’t want to smoke K2 but it’s so addictive. This is not a ‘bad batch.’ Whatever they’re adding is making our people more addicted. We have a whole crack epidemic coming back.”

Two years ago, McKinney and her colleagues started the “Kill K2” movement after the substance hospitalized her son and his friend for nearly a week. In recent weeks, she said she heard about significant K2 use among older Washingtonians, many of whom would mix their batch with crack and other substances.

As another academic year quickly approaches, McKinney expressed a desire to curb the overdose cases, and overall use, so that children don’t see bodies lining the streets on daily commutes to and from school. She revealed plans to continue touring affected areas with D.C. Councilman Trayon White (D-Ward 8) in the upcoming weeks.

Like Moten, McKinney bemoaned what she described as a lack of concern among store owners about the prevalence of K2 use and sales inside and immediately outside of their establishments.

Recounting a heated exchange at a community meeting between White and a Mellon Street store owner about his business’s alleged complicity in K2 sales, McKinney touted the need for additional pressure from the D.C. Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, saying that laws banning the sale of K2 haven’t been enforced to her liking.

“These stores and gas stations are in violation,” she said. “People are selling the food stamps to purchase. If you have a business, and people are panhandling and selling K2 outside, why are you not calling police? This goes back to the DCRA. [These store owners] wouldn’t be doing this in Wards 1, 2, 3 or 4.”

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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