Pubdate: Wed, 13 Jul 2016
Source: New York Times (NY)
Copyright: 2016 The New York Times Company
Author: Eli Rosenberg and Nate Schweber


There is a word that local residents and workers use to describe a 
group of drug users whose presence they say has grown around a busy 
Brooklyn transit hub: zombies. What was once a few familiar faces has 
turned into a tribe of strangers, walking around, staggering and 
looking lost, in the throes, it is believed, of the ill effects of 
K2, a synthetic drug that officials in New York have been working 
hard to eradicate.

The problem in the neighborhood has gotten to be such that a manager 
of an urban farm nearby, tired of the smoke wafting onto the 
property, posted two hand-painted wooden signs with a simple message: 
"No Smoking K2."

On Tuesday, the longstanding problem became a local crisis on this 
gritty patch, on the border of two developing neighborhoods, 
Bedford-Stuyvesant and Bushwick. In the area around the subway 
station at Myrtle Avenue and Broadway, emergency workers transported 
33 people who were suspected of overdosing on K2 to hospitals, the 
police said. The powerful drug, also known as Spice or synthetic 
marijuana, has grown in popularity in recent years despite public warnings.

Eight people were taken from the Stockton Street area to Woodhull 
Medical Center suffering from "altered mental states," lethargy and 
respiratory issues around 9:40 a.m., a spokesman for the Fire 
Department said. Others were found in the surrounding area.

"It's like a scene out of a zombie movie, a horrible scene," said 
Brian Arthur, 38, who watched three people collapse as he made his 
way to work in the morning and began live-streaming the episode on 
Facebook. "This drug truly paralyzed people."

Even hours after the first call came in, a few erratic people could 
still be seen staggering around the streets under the train tracks. 
Some fought back against gravity by bracing their arms on parked cars 
or light poles. A few toppled to the ground. A video that Mr. Arthur 
streamed on Facebook captured responders helping an unsteady man into 
an ambulance; nearby, another slumped soporifically against a fire hydrant.

Pairs of police officers walked the blocks around Broadway and Myrtle 
Avenue, checking the vital signs of men they found unconscious. 
Anyone who was unresponsive was loaded onto a stretcher and taken 
away in an ambulance.

K2 has been around for many years, but its pervasiveness and 
popularity with homeless people caused health officials to warn of a 
public health crisis last summer. In 2015, New York City had more 
than 6,000 emergency room visits involving the drug and two deaths, 
according to the health department.

After months of raids and arrests, and new legislation in the fall 
that banned synthetic cannabinoids and threatened businesses and 
owners who sold K2 with closings, hefty fines and jail time, 
officials announced an 85 percent reduction in K2-related emergency 
room visits in May.

Social service providers, however, have said that enforcement in some 
areas has simply caused some sellers and buyers to move to different 
communities. Regulars of the area around the transit hub say the use 
of K2 has bloomed into a larger problem in the last two to three 
months. "You can smell it," said Jason Reis, 34, the manager of the 
Bushwick City Farm, who posted signs in front of the urban green 
space about a week ago. "The way people are acting. They smoke it 
openly. And you can see them rolling it."

Mr. Reis described an influx of people roaming the side streets 
around the subway station, particularly the quiet Stockton Street 
block where the farm is located, sitting on benches and stoops or in 
front of stores, rolling and smoking K2 cigarettes, leaving trash and 
empty K2 packets with their garish exteriors behind, and even 
urinating and defecating in public.

Mr. Reis said he placed the signs out of concern for the children who 
frequent the farm to garden and play basketball. "We were just 
getting a little fed up with it," he said.

The police said they had recently targeted the area for arrests and 
seizures of K2. Residents said the drug used to be available at 
convenience stores in the area, but is no longer visible on shelves.

City Councilman Robert E. Cornegy Jr., who represents part of the 
area, said that he had heard from constituents about people "bugging 
out" and making drug sales as they waited for buses or trains. 
Dealers, he said, use the bustling intersection, which is shaded by 
the overhead subway tracks, to provide cover for their illicit activity.

"You can assimilate into the hustle and bustle, and that's part of 
the problem," Mr. Cornegy, a Democrat, said. "It's very difficult to 
track certain behaviors in an area like that without overpolicing, 
which nobody wants."

Nury Rodriguez, 55, a hairstylist at A Cut Above, on Stockton Street, 
said she had grown accustomed to the group of men congregating on the 
street in the morning. Usually they loiter and smoke all day. Some 
"act crazy," she said. On Tuesday morning, she was surprised to see a 
few falling to the ground.

"It's very scary because you never see something like that," Ms. 
Rodriguez said. "They look like they're going to die. They can't help 

Joseph Goldstein, Ashley Southall and Nikita Stewart contributed reporting.
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