It was mid-afternoon on a recent Thursday. The sun was shining. And two blocks from the U.S. Capitol and D.C. police headquarters, a few dozen people were getting high.
For nearly three years, Donald Page has watched this scene, where dealers and users traffic mostly in synthetic drugs known popularly as K2, and for nearly three years, he has picked up the phone in anger.
Page, who runs the Community for Creative Non-Violence homeless shelter across the street, said he has been calling the police, “begging and pleading for help.”
But it wasn’t until a few weeks ago, Page said, when a dozen people overdosed on the drug, that he saw District officials snap to attention and announce their plan to target synthetic drug use.
Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) and Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier say they’re going to raise the penalties for local businesses that sell the drugs; the move, they hope, combined with aggressive attention from D.C. police and the D.C. attorney general’s office, will make it untenable for businesses to keep breaking the law.
Lanier has spoken about the dangers of synthetic drugs — and has been working to develop a strategy to put an end to their use for the past two years. Police, focusing on distributors, have been able to seize large quantities of synthetic drugs in recent years, police said recently, including 137 kilograms in 2013 and 120 kilograms in 2014.
“We will do everything we can to crack down on the sale and use of synthetic drugs in our communities,” Bowser told a news conference last week.
And yet nowhere in the city seems to underscore that challenge quite like the intersection of Second and D streets NW.
The police officers who regularly drive by pass a scene where synthetic drug use is deeply intertwined with the larger city scourges of unemployment, homelessness and violence; where periodic efforts to shoo the users away succeed only for a couple of hours; and where the hopelessness seems to lean right up against the walls of the Labor Department, where the users and dealers shelter in the building’s tunnel.
“Everyone out here in this society, we’re looking for some way to escape,” said Darnell Thompson, 51, who uses K2 daily.
In a sense, he said, it works. “But only for a second. Because when my high is gone, I’m still here. Same situation.”
Targeting some problematic stores, the shelter workers and even the users say, will do little to halt the crisis that affects mostly District youth but that lives in the open near the Capitol. Bowser said she will seek to give Lanier authority to close stores temporarily during investigations, and the city could seek to impose fines and longer closures or move to revoke a store’s license.
“If they close every single store in this city, all [users] got to do is go over to Prince George’s County and get it,” Page said. Or, even easier, walk outside, where the local users say dealers regularly stop by.
But what frustrates Page most about the District’s plan is that it won’t solve his very real, daily troubles, he said: It won’t address the danger.
After years of pursuing low-level drug charges that havecaused American prisons to be disproportionately populated by black men, the District, like some other cities in the nation, has sought to change that course by legalizing marijuana and turning more attention toward major suppliers and away from minor infractions.
It makes sense, Page said. “But most of the people who come up with that idea are not living in neighborhoods that are infested with this problem.”
Put the drug hangout in front of Bowser’s house, he suggested, cynically — or in front of Lanier’s. “What about the people who want to go outside without the risk of being stabbed because these people might go off?”
While previous incarnations of synthetic drugs caused people to go “mellow,” Page said, “Now they’re getting violent. Whatever they’re putting in the stuff, it’s making them psychotic.”
According to D.C. police, the latest concoctions induce effects such as those associated with the hallucinogen PCP and have been linked to homicides.
Page said his shelter has witnessed at least 10 violent incidents that he says were linked to synthetic drugs since the start of the year. One recent evening, he said, a user from across the street attacked one of the shelter guards with a knife when the guard tried to expel him from the lobby.
“How many times I been hurt here?” said Abdul Mateen, the guard who was attacked. “Stitches over the eye, hit on the back with a bat.”
The police responded to the shelter’s call for help that night. But the very next day, the attacker was back. And that time, the responding officers declined to arrest the man until they had heard from their superiors, Page said.
“I don’t know if they ever did take him away,” Page said.
Lanier said that police have made four or five arrests on the block since the overdoses but that police are primarily focused on the suppliers — rather than users. He said targeting the problem at the source is the most effective way to keep the drugs away.
In the meantime, some shelter residents said they avoid the drug-afflicted side of the street out of fear.
Others, who are trying to escape the cycle of homelessness and drug use, said the scene has made it difficult to stay clean.
“You’re around this environment,” said Chambert Saintil, 41. “This building helps out. But those who do not live here make it so bad,” he said.
Outside, on Second and D, stories of childhood poverty, absent parents, criminal records and early unemployment are common among the men and women who populate what Page refers to as the block’s “open air drug market.”
Many have spent years filtering in and out of jail and homeless shelters.
“I get high all my life,” said Alvin Crutchfield, 53, who is regularly kicked out of the shelter for drug use and says he just started using K2.
Some, like Thompson, have been arrested for drug use and have been through treatment programs. But the results, they said, are usually the same.
“I came out of the program, and I came right back here,” Thompson said. He said he was able to stay off drugs for a month. But the rest was a foregone conclusion: “You put me back into the society you took me out of. Now what do you want me to do?”
Bowser has pledged $23 million in the coming year to try to bring an end to homelessness and has put a separate $100 million into the Housing Production Trust Fund to create more housing for a growing number of District residents struggling to keep a roof over their heads.
Both are pledges that people on Second and D greet with muted optimism — they’ve heard it all before, they say.
But the District’s synthetic drug problem is intricately tied up in that, they say.
Mateen, the shelter guard who is a former convict and once lived in the facility, commended the mayor and police chief for trying to stop the drug sales. “But it’s not going to work,” he said.
“They’re [selling] it cause a lot of them need money. They’re trying to pay rent,” he said of the dealers. “And the ones who are doing it are trying to get away from reality.”
Peter Hermann contributed to this report.