After More Than 100 K2-related Overdoses, New Haven is On Edge

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Local TV stations warned of graphic content as cameras panned over the elegantly landscaped New Haven Green, where jazz festivals and art fairs tend to overlap all summer in the coastal Connecticut city that’s home to Yale University.

A massive overdose of K2, some laced with fentanyl, severely sickened at least 115 people between August 15 and 16, and kept every branch of New Haven’s emergency services scrambling for 48 hours to care for them.

The situation was so critical that New Haven Mayor Toni Harp set up an onsite command center in the green, a 16-acre park surrounded by Yale University, shops and government buildings. New Haven Police Chief Anthony Campbell said one of three people arrested in connection with the overdoses apparently freely gave away K2 in an effort to get people hooked. The names of the suspects haven’t been released, according to The Associated Press.

“Everybody was dropping like flies, overdosing, convulsing and having seizures. They looked like zombies,” a female witness told a local NPR reporter.

The description sounded familiar.

Several deaths and hundreds of overdoses of K2, also known as spice, have been reported over the past year, adding to the awareness of illicit drugs’ dangers and, some say, the need for better access to legal cannabis. On July 12, 2018, the Food and Drug Administration issued a warning signed by several top officials, including Commissioner Scott Gottlieb, noting that the K2 outbreaks have become more deadly because brodifacoum, a rodent killer, has been found in the drug. The FDA statement speculated that the chemical, a long-acting anticoagulant, was being used to lengthen the euphoria of the K2.

In an email to Marijuana.com following the New Haven overdose crisis, the National Institute on Drug Abuse wrote: “It’s important to note that K2/Spice products are NOT synthetic marijuana. K2/Spice usually consists of inert plant material laced with synthetic chemicals that stimulate cannabinoid receptors in the brain (i.e., CB1 receptors). THC also exerts its effects by stimulation of CB1 receptors, but synthetic cannabinoids are much more potent than THC, and therefore have much stronger effects.”

Nevertheless, the words “synthetic marijuana” and “fake weed” dominated the headlines, accompanied by disturbing images of dozens of people staggering deliriously or passed out in the New Haven Green.

There were some who took advantage of the crisis by incorrectly equating K2/Spice with real cannabis.

Mike Stuart, US Attorney for the Southern District of West Virginia, which has the highest rate of opioid-related overdose deaths in the US, tweeted:

Synthetic pot mass overdose in CT. Earlier this year in Chicago, dozens died. Synthetic pot EXTREMELY dangerous. Wash Post says marijuana can be addictive. Marijuana is dangerous & a dangerous gateway (first step) to other dangerous illicit drugs.”

Aaron Romano, a criminal law attorney and legal counsel for Connecticut’s chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, (NORML), believes that with appropriate regulation of legal cannabis, the New Haven tragedy and similar overdose events would probably stop happening.

“This week’s overdoses reminds us of the prohibition era when people died from consuming wood alcohol or bathtub gin. The DEA knows there has never been a report of a cannabis overdose,” Romano told Marijuana.com. “We’re hoping that our legislators, as promised by some, will legalize cannabis in these upcoming elections.”

During his campaign, Connecticut Democratic gubernatorial nominee Ned Lamont posed what an October 2017 Sacred Heart University Institute for Public Policy poll had already confirmed: Some 71 percent of Connecticut’s voters want to legalize and tax adult-use cannabis.

Meanwhile, in a press briefing in New Haven on Friday, Aug. 17, 2018, three days after the crisis began, Chief Campbell said there were no new reports of overdoses.

“It is our hope and our prayer that we have come to the end of this crisis,” Campbell said.

Related: What is Synthetic Marijuana, and Why Should You Avoid It?

About Author

Maureen Meehan is a 25-year veteran journalist who worked in Latin America, the Middle East and Europe for NBC Radio & TV and numerous U.S., Canadian and European news outlets. She moved back to New York City in 2012 where she began writing for High Times magazine and continues her freelance career. After covering many wars around the world, Meehan finds the War on Drugs among the most perplexing, devastating and misguided.

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