Notes From the Synthetic Marijuana Trauma Ward

Social worker Steven Pokorski sees no “safety net” for K2 smokers.

Steven Pokorski is a mental health social worker at the Institute for Community Living (ICL Inc.) in New York City. ICL's mission is to assist people affected by mental illness and developmental disabilities to improve their wellbeing, recovery, and participation in community living. I know Pokorski through a bar I sometimes frequent in the West Village. He’s a low-key, non-assuming guy with glasses—you wouldn’t realize he deals with some of the worst drug addicts in the New York City. Their drug of choice is K2: so-called synthetic marijuana that is sold just about everywhere in the city; especially in bodegas in poorer neighborhoods. 

K2, also known as Spice, Black Mamba and Bombay Blue, is basically shredded herbs sprayed with a potent mix of chemicals. It is parceled out in a shiny plastic packet and often marketed as incense or a room deodorizer. Customers buy K2 to smoke the stuff, and it is widely used among homeless people in New York City. Photos of people suffering K2’s horrendous effects have been moving newspapers and popping up on websites since 2010. 

For years, K2 was legal, or semi-legal, in New York City, while marijuana was illegal. That legal K2 gave illegal marijuana a really bad name. K2 is made up chemicals meant to create an effect mimicking the high of THC, one of the magical ingredients of marijuana. The huge problem is, none of the K2 chemicals have been safety tested on human beings and should be considered dangerous to the point of poisonous. 

Image via Lance Cpl. Damany S. Coleman

Furthermore, numerous shady companies are manufacturing K2. The health risks of today’s batch may be far more severe than yesterday’s dose. Smoking K2 is the equivalent of synthetic drug Russian roulette. Death is a known side effect of K2. 

NYPD Commissioner William Bratton has described K2 as a “weaponized marijuana” that can make users go “totally crazy.” Bratton has instructed his officers to watch for signs of a K2 overdose when responding to a call—and when those signs appear, request backup. 

One reason police are fearful of dealing with crazed K2 users is that the drug has definite, negative and extreme mental health effects. Social worker Steven Pokorski primarily works with individuals who have been diagnosed with severe and persistent mental illnesses. He serves a population that has been homeless for a period of time and hasn’t received adequate healthcare due to gaps in the social service “safety net.” These people, who live far below the poverty line, are most affected by smoking K2. 

Image via Eric Pouhier

Pokorski knows the outcomes of long-term K2 use: “The effects of K2 include catatonia, triggering of a mental health episode, loss of teeth, nerve damage, brain damage, and the list goes on,” he says. 

The most pressing issue linked to K2, in Pokorski’s observations, is that, “If someone smokes K2 who's never had a mental health problem in their life, it can trigger syndromes such as schizophrenia, schizophorum, and schizoaffective disorder, if they have the genes present.” 

A joint of K2 goes for a dollar or two. In comparison, an average marijuana joint costs about $5. 

Pokorski theorizes that K2 has become epidemic in NYC because of the housing problem: “Homelessness is a horrific event that causes deep emotional pain and distress. Humans naturally will look for ways to sooth that pain,” Pokorski says. “A K2 joint goes for around 1$ at local bodegas, far cheaper than a marijuana joint. It is a cost-effective high and it generates good money for bodegas.” 

Pokorski feels that K2 has gone under the radar for so long because its main demographic is one that we as a society don't often cater to: the homeless, the mentally ill and people in poverty. 

“It didn't become a well-known problem by the media until now due to it flooding NYC emergency rooms, which ultimately draws the attention of lawmakers and health officials looking to save tax dollars,” he says. 

The DEA announced in September that it was designating K2 (more technically known as MAB–CHMINACA) as a Schedule 1 drug under the Controlled Substances Act, the same category as heroin and LSD. 

“Placing K2 as a Schedule 1 drug will help solve the availability of K2,” Pokorski says. “But it will also lead to several people going to court for using the drug, costing tax payers thousands in court fees, unnecessary jail time, and ultimately not solving the real problem of addressing the pain people face which leads to the use.” 

Pokorski ends on a grim note: “I spend a few hours a week in city hospitals. The ER has transformed into a K2 crisis unit. If you were to visit any city hospital emergency room, you'd find the same thing.”