D.C. first responders are scrambling to deal with a surge of overdoses attributable to a “bad batch” of synthetic marijuana, known as “K2” or “Spice,” with at least 130 calls about people overdosing and four unconfirmed deaths this week, officials said.
The D.C. Fire and Emergency Services Department (FEMS) said first responders have “met all demands” but the high numbers of overdose calls have “put a strain on the system.” Officials had no definitive tally Thursday, saying that some of the 130 overdose calls have involved multiple victims.
About a quarter of calls made to D.C. police since Saturday have been about K2 overdoses, according to the city’s Department of Human Services.
FEMS spokesman Vito Maggiolo said the District hasn’t seen such a crisis since July 2016, when 500 people overdosed on synthetic opioids.
“Starting this weekend, we’ve transported as much as we did in all of July last year,” Mr. Maggiolo said, noting that 105 overdose cases occurred in July 2017.
The wave of overdoses was first reported by Fox affiliate WTTG (Channel 5), which aired videos and photographs showing overdose victims staggering and swaying, or passed out on the street.
Fire officials told The Washington Times that so many overdoses occurred between Union Station and the homeless men’s shelter on D and Second streets NW that FEMS supervisors were stationed at the shelter to speed up response times.
Homeless people are at an additional risk because dehydration worsens the effects of the drug overdose, said Carter Hewgley, a senior adviser at the Human Services Department. But he added that the bad batch of synthetic marijuana affects drug users all over the city.
“I’m seeing it in my neighborhood, having nothing to do with homelessness,” said Mr. Hewgley, who lives in Northwest.
The synthetic marijuana called K2 or Spice is made by spraying psychoactive chemicals on a variety of leaves, which are crushed to resemble marijuana buds. The substance is sold in brightly colored foil packages, often labeled as “incense,” and users usually roll it into cigarettes.
K2 is illegal in the District, which levies a $10,000 fine on any store caught selling it.
The psychoactive “high” from K2 is unpredictable because batches don’t label which chemicals are used. The D.C. police website says “batches can contain multiple active ingredients which may be much more toxic when taken together. These lethal batches are very hard to detect until it’s too late.”
K2 periodically causes mass overdoses: Viral videos showed dozens of people staggering like zombies or passed out in New York City, as police reported 33 overdoses in July 2016. In 2013 the Denver Post reported that 221 people overdosed on the drug in one month.
K2 originally was marketed as a safe alternative for marijuana in the early 2000s and sold legally in gas stations and convenience stores across the country. The Drug Enforcement Administration has since restricted several of the drug’s key ingredients.
However, a 2017 study in “Trends in Pharmacological Sciences” reported that K2 remains popular as a cheap street drug, especially because traditional marijuana drug screenings cannot detect it.
Officials say to call 911 if a person appears to be exhibiting the signs of a K2 overdose, which include severe confusion, nausea, vomiting and aggressive outbursts.
The D.C. Department of Health also asks people to call the city’s Shelter Hotline at (202) 299-7093 to request water delivered to anyone on the street who needs it.