Drug dealers on the streets of Philadelphia have discovered synthetic pot, openly smoking blunts all day. K2 occupies a gray area—only some forms are illegal and not all highs are safe—but it improves their long hours on the job. Philly police now have to discover how to deal with its dangers.
Hit up one of Philly’s drug corners, regardless of whether the crew working there is moving crack, heroin, pills or PCP, and you’ll find piles of empty baggies that aren’t used to package any of these drugs. The bags are stickered with colorful labels, names like Blonde, Summit and Blue set against a hypnotic background, and stamped with a letter and number in big, bold no-frills font: “K2”—synthetic cannabinoids, which produce an effect similar to marijuana. These designer drugs are easily made in labs from commercially available materials.
What had cops and drug counselors like me first scratching our heads when K2 first hit Philly last year was this: why, in a city that at any given time contains enough easily available and potent marijuana to fill the Grand Canyon, did a synthetic substitute take hold in the street drug culture?
The answer is that many K2 smokers are drug dealers, many of whom are administered regular drug tests as a condition of county probation. Late last year word got around that the cannabinoids commonly found in the popular K2 brand don’t trigger a positive drug test result for THC. Having discovered a loophole in criminal justice-stipulated marijuana prohibition, blunt-loving corner hustlers rushed to step through it.
“Everybody out here be smoking this K2,” says Chris, a crack dealer from West Philly who is on probation for drug charges. “You see corners out here that are covered with so many empty K2 bags you can’t see the sidewalk.”
Chris says the same corners used to be covered in empty weed bags but Philly’s hustlers, many of whom report smoking five or ten blunts a day while working the corner, made the switch when word got out that you could consume K2 without hassle from your probation officer.
Philly’s hustlers, like The Wire’s famed “corner boys” are a disaffected lot—and rightly so. These young black and Latino men are the product of one of the worst public education systems in the country; they come from predominantly poor households with single moms; they’ve had childhoods full of trauma as routine victims or witnesses (or both) of abuse and violence—and when they want to get away from all the psychodrama at home, an indoctrination into street life, including guns and drugs, awaits them.
Tour the drug corners in any part of town and you will find kids as young as 12 “grinding,” holding corners down and making the low-level hand-to-hand drug transactions that fuel Philly’s drug trade. And to improve the tedium, they partake. By the time these kids catch their first adult criminal case, and find themselves reporting to a probation officer, they’ve long been in the drug game and don’t know any other way of life.
The current Great Recession is an outright Great Depression in poor Latino and black inner-city neighborhoods, raising the chronic fears and daily misery to crisis levels. When college kids with four-year degrees are competing for lousy cashier jobs, Philly’s corner hustlers are finding it harder than ever to exit the lifestyle. Let’s be real: their chance of finding a decent job is less than zero. They return to what they know in order to make a living—selling drugs, hanging out on corners passing blunts day and night—regardless if the county has them piss in a cup a couple times a month in an attempt to prevent it.
And don’t forget: the U.S. prison industry is the world’s largest and most lucrative. The lives of these corner boys feed the machine.
Over the past few years waves of drug-hysteria stories about new synthetic substances have flooded the media; headlines shouted that emerging drugs like the stimulant mephedrone were being sold legally, marketed as “bath salts” body products and wreaking havoc on the minds of drug abusers. Even as legislators scrambled to ban this demonized new test-tube high, habitual substance abusers in drug-soaked inner cities like Philly shrugged. Who needs bath salts when you can get whatever you want, whenever you want, at high potency and low cost on one of the city’s hundreds of drug corners?
On the drug corners in any part of Philly and you will find kids as young as 12 “grinding,” holding corners down and making the low-level hand-to-hand drug transactions that fuel Philly’s drug trade. And to improve the tedium, they partake.
But one new synthetic drug class found a market niche and widely took hold among a subset of Philly drug users: designer THC, pot’s active ingredient. An organic chemist at Clemson University, John W. Huffman, was the first to synthesize a host of very common THC look-alikes, such as JWH-018 and JWH-073, telling the Guardian in 2009 that doing so was “nothing special.” Big Pharma started experimenting with cannabinoid analogs some two decades ago, largely to learn more about the function of the brain’s CB1 and CB2 receptors, which target these molecules. (The CB1 receptor appears to be responsible for THC’s psychoactive effects, while CB2 processes its anti-pain and anti-inflammatory benefits.)
By the early 2000s, these compounds were making their way onto the streets of the developed world, with its lucrative trade in mood alteration. Typically, the chemicals are sprayed onto plant matter that looks like pot and is purchased at gas stations and head shops around Philly in little K2 branded ziplocs resembling the $40 weed sacks sold on street corners. And despite an emergency DEA ban on these substances last year and their being made officially illegal in the United States last March, the drug’s popularity on the streets has skyrocketed.
Statistics showing how widespread K2 use is among Philly’s street-level drug abusers have not yet been compiled since local law enforcement took note of the development only last year. Whether recent interdiction efforts have cooled the drug’s appeal or simply moved it into the black market where use continues to climb is another question mark.
Law enforcement is playing catch up, but they’re moving quickly. Pennsylvania state parole, which deals with more serious criminal offenders, says they have already closed the K2 loophole. Leo Dunn, assistant director of the Pennsylvania Board of Probation and Parole’s Office of Policy, Legislative Affairs and Communications, explained to The Fix the state’s current official policy on K2, stressing that using the drug doesn’t guarantee someone goes back to jail: “While standard drug tests do not detect K2 and related compounds, probationers and parolees under state supervision are being tested under a protocol that does give us the ability to detect K2 and several other new ‘designer’ drugs. However, please be aware that the Board of Probation and Parole rarely re-incarcerates offenders due to one positive drug test. We have a range of sanctions available to us depending on the seriousness and repetitiveness of the violation behavior.”