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K2, a potent synthetic drug, is on the rise in Philly, challenging police and outreach workers

The unpredictable synthetic drug is contributing to tensions at Suburban Station, authorities said.

Jamal Phelps (left) and Charlene Bennett, both in their 40s, move toward the exits as SEPTA Transit Police arrive after midnight to clear homeless people out of Suburban Station before locking the doors for the night.
Jamal Phelps (left) and Charlene Bennett, both in their 40s, move toward the exits as SEPTA Transit Police arrive after midnight to clear homeless people out of Suburban Station before locking the doors for the night.Read moreTOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer

Use of the drug K2, which can lead to erratic behavior and unpredictable side effects, is on the rise in Philadelphia, cropping up in neighborhoods like Kensington, the heart of the city’s opioid epidemic, and at Suburban Station, where officials say it is contributing to a tense relationship between police and people who shelter there.

Twice in two months, SEPTA transit police have come under scrutiny for their interactions with homeless people, including a clash in January that turned violent, in which officers sprayed people with mace and hit them with batons. These incidents prompted an outcry from advocates for vulnerable people who often suffer from serious mental health and addiction issues. Blossoming use of K2 — a synthetic compound sprayed on plant matter and smoked — is making the situation more volatile, they say.

“What’s happening in Suburban Station right now is very different than what was happening three years ago," said Sister Mary Scullion, executive director of the homeless support nonprofit Project HOME. The big problem is addiction, she said, and K2 is exacerbating the problem.

Transit officers described some people acting almost unresponsive, while others become wild, as if they had taken PCP. K2 is a lab-made cannabinoid that acts on the same brain receptors as marijuana, but has far more unpredictable effects, which can include catatonia, psychosis, and agitation that can lead to violence.

Philadelphia — already dealing with one of the nation’s worst opioid crises — has no city-funded treatment facilities dedicated to helping people addicted to K2. And it’s hard to help people who insist on using it to at least protect themselves from its worst impacts, because so little is known about it.

>> READ MORE: SEPTA police used pepper spray, batons in clash with homeless people at Suburban Station

“The best we can say is not to use a lot,” said Allison Herens, the city’s harm reduction coordinator. “The chemical makeup is so unpredictable. So we say, ‘Use a little bit, see how you feel, take it with people [around you], stay hydrated.’”

SEPTA police don’t keep statistics on K2 but reported that the most common cause of arrest in the station in 2018 was smoking, with 146 cases. And there were 47 arrests for marijuana use. SEPTA officials said K2-related arrests would be wrapped into those numbers.

The situation at the transit hub is complicated by people who are not homeless coming there at night to buy and use K2. Sales of the drug happen in a little-traveled, concrete hall known there as Sherwood Forest for its many pillars, people at the station said. Suburban’s web of corridors offer secluded spots to smoke.

At one time, a variation on the drug — also called “spice” — could be bought legally at gas stations and corner stores. Though labeled “not for human consumption,” it gained a reputation as a legal alternative to marijuana. Now, several variations of K2 are federally classified as a Schedule I drug — the same category as heroin — and manufacturers will change their product’s chemical composition to get around regulatory efforts.

“In a lot of ways, it’s like fentanyl and its analogs,” said Pat Trainor, a spokesman for the local branch of the Drug Enforcement Administration. Manufacturers of that deadly synthetic opioid also change that drug’s chemical makeup slightly to avoid seizures of their product.

>> READ MORE: Philly overdose drug may have contained toxic designer drug

The compounds in K2, typically brought to the U.S. from China, can vary widely, said Mary Abood, an expert in cannabinoids at the Lewis Katz School of Medicine’s Center for Substance Abuse Research at Temple University.

“You can’t really know what’s in it, so it’s very dangerous,” she said. “Some of the original structures were related to the THC molecule [the active ingredient in cannabis], but now they don’t look anything like it.”

The tweaks to its composition also can make K2 hard to detect in drug screenings — and some people who use it say they first sought it out to get around a drug test.

“Originally, I was trying to get my kids back and I had to take urine tests,” Charlene Bennett, 40, said at Suburban Station on a recent night. “But I fell in love with the high.”

Just after midnight on a recent night in Suburban Station, Bennett and three others sat on suitcases and passed around a thin brown cigar. Nearby, others slept propped against the walls. They knew within minutes police would be along to evict them. Bennett and a friend, Jamal Phelps, weighed whether to find a city shelter or sleep on the street that freezing night relying on the thin blankets they carried to stay warm. Another man, Kenny Solomon, who a week earlier gained attention after a SEPTA officer dragged him in his wheelchair while he was nearly unresponsive, said he would likely sleep near a steam grate on the street.

The K2 blunts, and their acrid, unpleasant smell, were ubiquitous.

Herens said the explosion of drugs like K2 shows how desperate people in addiction can become to avoid the consequences of failing drug screens.

“When people don’t have safe means to take care of themselves the way they want to and feel like they need to, they will turn to more dangerous options,” she said. “What are we really doing by drug testing, and doing it in this way — especially in recovery and treatment sites where it’s used as a form of punishment?”

For now, Herens hands out fliers in the Suburban Station tunnels and warns K2 users that their drugs could be cut with deadly fentanyl.

In Kensington, the center of the city’s opioid crisis, K2 is also on the rise. The drug was not present in any of the city’s fatal overdoses in recent years, but last summer, a combination of heroin, fentanyl, and K2 sold in that neighborhood caused two spikes in nonfatal overdoses that sickened hundreds. The city’s health department attributes three overdose deaths since May 2018 to K2.

K2 first gained wide use in Philadelphia around 2011, Herens said, and drug users started displaying some of its more serious side effects, including psychosis, around 2013 and 2014. “Some of the the side effects you see now are more severe than what we initially saw,” she said.

A man on Kensington Avenue who gave his name as Mark said he began smoking K2 as a teenager because family members on probation, trying to pass a drug test, had begun using it themselves. The first time he smoked it, he said, “I thought I was going to die. I had a panic attack.”

But it was cheaper than marijuana — a blunt can cost just $1 — and stronger, too, and Mark, 31, kept using it. He had struggled with opioid addiction as well and has been doing well on Suboxone, an opioid-based treatment medication, he said. K2, though, has been harder to kick.

“It’s been part of my everyday routine for 12 years,” he said. “It sucks. But every chance I get to grab it, I take it.”

People who use the drug say it can be a soothing high, and one user, Alex Menendez, 19, who mentioned suffering from back and knee pain related to a construction job, said the drug eased his pain and reduced the agony of opioid withdrawal.

“If you’re dope sick and you smoke K2, it completely stops you from getting dope sick,” Menendez said as he smoked a K2 cigar outside a respite center on Kensington Avenue.

Keith Thompson, 45, has been homeless in Philadelphia for about three months, he said, and tried K2 once, not realizing it wasn’t marijuana. He described being terrified by the experience. While affected by the drug, he had trouble getting to his tent nearby and couldn’t stand up.

“You’ve got to be insane to smoke that,” he said.