Synthetic High

New drug ban takes effect amid crisis afflicting city’s underprivileged

It’s become an all too common sight: Emergency sirens became louder on a hot August afternoon as a yellow ambulance approached the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless, just a few blocks from the Capitol in downtown Austin.

It was about 4 p.m., and paramedics rushed to treat a man who was lying facedown and unconscious on the Seventh Street sidewalk. As medics treated him, he started to come to but couldn’t even string together a sentence.

“He’s got that K2 swagger,” one paramedic said.

“Y’all need to leave that K2 be,” a woman yelled from a few feet away.

Synthetic cannabinoids — commonly known as synthetic weed, K2 or Spice — are drugs marketed as a legal alternative to marijuana and, authorities say, have been sending many of Austin’s homeless people to the hospital. This summer, paramedics have treated hundreds of people on the streets of downtown for K2-related symptoms that have ranged from hallucinations, seizures and violent behavior to low blood pressure mixed with low heart rate, a deadly combination.

The recent spike has baffled medics, who have questioned whether local officials are doing enough to spread awareness about the drug’s dangers. And even though a new state law that went into effect this month made hundreds of chemical combinations illegal, testing synthetic drugs swiftly enough to charge suspects could still remain a challenge.

Synthetic cannabinoids’ original drug formula, JWH, was created by John W. Huffman, a retired Clemson University chemist who was looking to recreate the effects of THC — the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana — for drug development and neurological studies.

When the formula made its way onto the streets in about 2004, people started smoking herbal mixtures similar to potpourri sprayed with the chemical.

K2 began to appear in colorful foil packages displayed in convenience stores across the country, but soon users started reacting badly to it. Since then, federal and state officials have worked to ban as many variations of the drug as possible.

Since 2010, the Travis County medical examiner’s office has found the drug in the bodies of 18 people who have died in the 43 counties it serves, including Travis, Williamson, Fayette and Brazos counties.

Austin has seen several spates of toxic reactions to K2 in the last two years, but medical calls involving synthetic drugs have become a constant in recent months, Austin-Travis County Emergency Medical Services officials said.

Since May 29, medics have treated about 863 people who used synthetic cannabinoids, and it doesn’t seem to be slowing down. Records show most of those patients were found outside the ARCH.

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Treating the ill

A few months ago, Freddie Garcia, a 16-year veteran with Austin-Travis County EMS, saw a man go from dancing around to punching a police horse outside the ARCH in a matter of seconds. Moments later, the same man punched one of the paramedics’ ambulances.

“Watch your back, because we don’t know what this guy is doing,” Garcia told his partner as they exited their ambulance.

As they jumped out, the paramedics were flagged down by a group of people who had seen another man having a seizure. After treating both men, Garcia and his partner learned that the two patients had taken synthetic cannabinoids — same cause, but completely different symptoms.

“I just said, ‘How the heck?’ This drug is so unusual that you don’t know what will happen,” Garcia said. “This is not only fake marijuana, this is something far more dangerous.”

The drug has not only been a threat for users. Paramedics and nurses at Austin-area hospitals must deal with synthetic cannabinoid-related aggressive behavior on a regular basis, sometimes putting their own safety at risk. Several patients have turned into offenders when they ended up injuring medics, officials said.

In June, a nurse at University Medical Center Brackenridge was placing cardiac monitors on patient Christopher Franklin’s chest when he grabbed her right forearm and squeezed it tightly for about five to 10 seconds, an arrest warrant affidavit said. Franklin is now facing a charge of assault with injury to emergency personnel that landed him in jail for a few days.

Garcia said he now looks around every time he goes out on a call in case there’s more than one person reacting to the drug.

“For us, the biggest challenge is we don’t know what to expect when we get there,” Garcia said.

Summer of Spice

Austin-Travis County Emergency Medical Services have responded to more than 800 medical calls since May 29 concerning synthetic cannabinoids — commonly known as synthetic weed, K2 or Spice. Many of the calls were centered downtown near homeless service locations.

Map derived from 456 calls between 5/24/2015 and 8/10/2015 where the location was reported.

The perils related to K2 calls and the inability of authorities to curb the flow of synthetic drugs in the streets have led to mounting frustration among medics.

“Sometimes we feel like we are fighting the battle by ourselves. … We can’t make it any more dramatic than it already is,” said EMS Commander Mike Benavides.

Unlike Texas, health officials in Alabama, Mississippi and New York have issued alerts on the adverse reactions to K2. Some other states started using health codes to raid small businesses and seize thousands of K2 packets.

At the local level, cities across the country have tried to crack down on synthetic drug sales. Last month, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh signed an ordinance that penalizes the sale, possession or distribution of synthetic drugs with a $300 fine. In New York, local and state lawmakers have asked online retailers like eBay, Craigslist and Backpage to remove listings for “synthetic marijuana.”

When asked why Austin hasn’t employed similar tactics, Health and Human Services Department spokeswoman Carole Barasch said they are not involved with outreach surrounding synthetic drug abuse. Their programs are focused on illnesses, she said, while Austin Travis County Integral Care focuses on substance abuse.

Austin Travis County Integral Care Chief Strategy Officer Ellen Richards admitted they have not done any outreach campaigns related to synthetic drugs. But the organization has acknowledged the rash of synthetic cannabinoid overdoses in a study released this month, she said.

“We are really only focusing on treatment,” Richards said.

Orlando Carbajal smokes K2 across the street from the ARCH, where he and a group of friends were hanging out. (Kelly West/American-Statesman)

Hurdles with law enforcement

Since 2009, law enforcement agencies across the nation have identified about 100 chemical variations of synthetic cannabinoids, but only 26 versions have been classified as illegal through legislation or policy, according to the Office of National Drug Control Policy.

In Texas, authorities have struggled to enforce synthetic drug bans for years.

A 2011 bill added a laundry list of chemicals to a new penalty group in the Texas Controlled Substances Act and banned those that “mimic the pharmacological effect” of natural marijuana. However, the biggest challenge in prosecuting K2-related crimes, experts said, is how easy it is for manufacturers to tweak the drug and find new chemical variations that aren’t illegal.

Jane Maxwell, a research professor at the School of Social Work at the University of Texas, has studied drug trends for more than 20 years. Maxwell said a newly formulated synthetic drug has been appearing on the streets every four to six days as dealers change the formula to avoid getting arrested.

As a result, police officers across the state would see the drugs in the street but could not do anything about it. Even if police found a version of K2 that was actually blacklisted, proving it had obstacles: Unlike other drugs, such as cocaine or marijuana, police do not have field tests to verify if the substances they find are illegal strains of synthetic cannabinoids.

On Sept. 1, a new law introduced during the 2015 state Legislature by Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, went into effect. This time, lawmakers replaced the language used in the 2011 law with three lists of specific components used to create the drug that covers about 1,000 possible variations of synthetic cannabinoids.

Harris County Assistant District Attorney Justin Wood is among the authorities who are confident that this time the net will be wide enough to ban almost every combination drug manufacturers can come up with.

The law “is written more general and broad, and it doesn’t cover other substances that are not synthetic marijuana,” Woods said. “We believe this would cover 99.9 percent of the compounds we’d see.”

Despite the passage of Huffman’s law, testing suspected contraband for synthetic cannabinoids in a timely manner still remains a serious challenge.

Officers have limited time to hold suspects in jail while they test a suspected drug and find out whether it is illegal. If investigators can’t prove it within 24 or 48 hours, suspects have to be released.

The new law will place a burden on drug labs, said Lt. David Socha of the Austin Police Department’s Organized Crime Unit.

“It’s a great law, but it’s really tough on labs,” Socha said. Still, he said, it might be the first step in ridding the streets of synthetic drugs.

“At least now we can seize (suspected K2) with probable cause. We may not make an arrest, but at least we can seize it,” Socha said.

A problem among the homeless

In anticipation of synthetic cannabinoids’ changing legal status, Front Steps, the aid group that runs homeless center in downtown Austin, hosted an information session on the drug on Aug. 25.

Austin police, emergency services and UMC Brackenridge representatives answered questions about the synthetic drug from a crowd of people that nearly filled the ARCH’s first floor. People raised their hands to ask questions about what’s in the drug, why it’s dangerous and how authorities will deal with users and manufacturers.

Many in the crowd expressed a distaste for synthetic drugs. One man said he saw ambulances come to the ARCH 15 times a day. A woman referred to K2 with a tinge of disgust as “that stuff that kills people.”

After the presentation, volunteers clad in white T-shirts proclaiming “My body is a K2-free zone” passed anti-K2 pledges on small cards for people to sign in return for a T-shirt of their own.

“Just keep in mind you are rolling the dice every time you decide to smoke it. You don’t know what chemicals are on it,” police officer Shelly Borton said.

Even with the new law, police officers and medics recognize that outreach will still be crucial in reducing drug use — and that the battle will be uphill.

“K2 just makes people fall asleep. You know when K2 is on the block because the whole block will be asleep.”
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(Photo by Kelly West/American-Statesman)

Those who frequent the ARCH know that the sidewalks outside the building are typically divided by who’s using what: The Seventh Street sidewalk is used by people who drink alcohol or use heroin, while the other side on Neches Street is dominated by those who smoke cigarettes, weed and synthetic drugs.

It is near this side of the building where a few weeks ago police and paramedics struggled to lift a man who had been convulsing on the ground in a puddle of his own vomit. A group of people watched from a few feet away before losing interest.

“This isn’t a bad one,” said Clem Hollingsworth, a 28-year-old construction worker who said he has seen many people use synthetic marijuana during the four years he’s been homeless. “It gets worse. … Every day, they’re throwing up. They’re passing out.”

The dangers of synthetic marijuana are well-known in the community, Hollingsworth said, but it remains the preferred drug for many. Because unlike pot, he said, it won’t show up in standard drug tests, and it’s relatively inexpensive.

And they like the relaxation, Hollingsworth said.

“There’s so much stress being homeless. You just want to feel relaxed,” he said.

Most of the calls have been to the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless in downtown Austin. Eden Molina, who has been smoking K2 for about five years, said she has never had an adverse reaction to the drug. (Kelly West/American-Statesman)