According to a WTOP report last month on the prevalence of the illegal street drug K2 in the District, “There have been more than 3,000 K2 overdose cases through July, marking a 128 percent increase of the same stretch of time last year, when there were about 1,300 cases.”
Reacting to the scourge of illegal street drugs, D.C. Deputy Mayor for Public Safety and Justice Kevin Donahue and Marc Dalton, chief clinical officer at the city’s Behavioral Health Department, issued a joint statement saying that Mayor Muriel E. Bowser’s administration was working with law enforcement and a number of health providers “to engage and educate the public on the effects of using dangerous substances.”
Since when? And to what effect?
Let’s revisit a bit of reporting I did seven years ago.
In May 2012, Kenneth Barnes, former head of the youth advocacy group Reaching Out to Others Together (ROOT), called me concerning reports of D.C. youths getting “wigged out” on a drug being sold openly in D.C. convenience stores and gas stations. The drug, Barnes said, was called K2 and was also being offered under the street names Kush and Abama. Parents had told him it was having a devastating effect on their kids. Look for it, he advised.
So, I did.
While getting gas at the Exxon station in the 4500 block of Benning Road NE, I asked the clerk for Kush. She produced a shiny, colored plastic bag. Several ingredients were listed on the label on the back, along with the admonition: “Not to be sold to children.” I didn’t recognize the ingredients, and I declined to buy the bag, which sold for $8.
At a gas station at Brentwood Road and V Street NE, there was no need to ask. Bags of Kush were on display inside the cashier’s booth. The bag, the clerk said, cost $25. No sale.
I later learned from a Washington bureau spokesman for the Drug Enforcement Administration that this so-called fake pot was being sold at retail outlets around the country and online under such brand names as K2, Kush, Fake Weed, Spice and Blaze. The products were plant material coated with chemicals claimed to mimic THC, the active ingredient in marijuana.
By that time, the DEA had taken emergency action to declare the chemicals used to make these products illegal, charging that the chemicals represent “an imminent threat to public health and safety.” But that didn’t mean the bags I saw were necessarily illegal, because the ingredients in the bags had not been tested. Moreover, the DEA said, manufacturers of synthetic drugs can easily change a product’s name or switch ingredients to mask their intended purpose.
Sources of the convulsions, vomiting, disorientation and anxiety attacks being seen by parents and emergency room physicians in 2012 were no mystery — at least not in the District.
Yet the District dithered — that is until 2015, three years later, when overdoses from synthetic drugs spiked, sending dozens to area hospitals. Donahue also said that synthetics were part of the explanation for a jump in violent crime, noting, “We know that when we arrest people for violent crimes, almost 40 percent have synthetic drugs in their system.” That bad news was a kick in city hall’s butt.
Bowser (D) got emergency legislation passed, giving then-D.C. Police Chief Cathy Lanier authority to shut down any business found selling the drugs for a period of 96 hours while police investigated.
But the synthetic-drug market kept on truckin’.
In September 2018, Bowser revealed that the spike in K2-linked overdoses was draining the city: “Our emergency responders continue to respond to dozens of K2 overdoses every day.” In that month alone, overdose cases exceeded 1,000, sending nearly 800 people to hospitals. Said Bowser: “We need to get these deadly drugs off our streets.”
The District ended 2018 with 3,488 overdose cases and is well on the way to another record-breaking year.
That lethargic city response let synthetic-drug dealers gain a toehold in our communities. How lethargic? Emergency legislation to help law enforcement to crack down on suppliers of the drugs, introduced by the Office of the Attorney General and passed by the D.C. Council in 2016, was allowed to expire in 2017 without the council having made the action permanent. It wasn’t until the September 2018 spike in overdoses that the D.C. Council, at Bowser’s request, reinstated the legislation to help law enforcement officers crack down on K2 distributors and suppliers.
Alarms sounded more than seven years ago went largely unanswered.
It’s understandable if you feel tempted to scoff at the joint statement by Deputy Mayor Donahue and the Behavioral Health Department’s Dalton touting the Bowser administration’s “community partnerships and public awareness campaigns” about K2.
People in affected communities know that stuff is out there. They are wondering what exactly their government is doing about it. Some began asking as long as seven years ago.
Read more from Colbert King’s archive.