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K2 and Corner Boys: Philly Flips Over Phony Pot

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Arrests of drug dealers for smoking K2 are not yet official policy. photo via

By Jeff Deeney

10/05/11

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Philadelphia county probation officers, who tend to deal with the small-time offenders who work Philly’s drug corners, agree that getting high on probation has always been a dice throw. Some users hand in positive drug tests for weed for years and never have a violation hearing; others “pop hot” for weed a handful of times and find themselves standing in front of a judge. Whether or not to send probationers to jail or recommend rehab is up to the judge, and attitudes for marijuana violations range from zero tolerance to devil-may-care depending on who’s wearing the robe. But the rules are stiff for harder substances. Three positive test results for cocaine or heroin triggers an automatic violation hearing. PCP, which law enforcement considers the bane of their duty because it can make users psychotic and violent, triggers an automatic violation hearing after only two positive test results.

Not all users find the K2 probation work-around to be so perfect; complaints of unpleasant side effects abound. “I smoke K2 sometimes,” says Rudy, a crack dealer from North Philly who has to take urine tests for probation related to drug charges. “I heard it don’t make your piss hot and they sell it right out of the gas station on Lehigh Avenue. But that shit gives me headaches—lots of dudes don’t like how it hits them. It’s like weed, but at the same time, it ain’t.”

Billy, a heavily tattooed drug seller, weed smoker and pill user from an Italian section of South Philly who is also on probation, says he buys his K2 at a South Street head shop. He agrees that the effects can be unpredictable. “The first time I hit some I almost fell out,” he recalls. “I was seeing shit, straight schitzin’. I swore I had just smoked wet (PCP).”

The variability in effect could be for any number of reasons. Because the substances are unregulated, it’s impossible to know in advance which synthetic cannabinoid(s) a particular bag contains, or in what potency, or even if it contains a cannabinoid at all.

“You got dudes out here smoking blunts that they don’t even know what’s inside the wrap. You got people getting migraines, getting sick as a dog, blacking out.” Rudy says. “Weed is safe—just let us smoke weed and we’ll just smoke weed.”

Philly police have been frustrated by the rise of K2, which dealers openly smoke on the corner. Policing public marijuana smoking has played a big role in one of the cornerstones of Philadelphia’s war on drugs: the controversial Stop-and-Frisk program. Cops can search pedestrians in high crime areas for minimal cause. Police routinely search neighborhood kids on corners if they palm what appears to be a blunt when a cruiser rolls past. Suspicion of minor marijuana offenses can give police a reason to detain and an alleged hustler; police claim they’re looking for harder drugs and firearms. But despite its recently being made illegal, neighborhood kids report that many police don’t really know what to do with K2 users yet and generally leave them alone.

Chris from West Philly told The Fix how these scenes now play out in the K2 era, telling a story from early this year: “I was on the corner with my boys passing the blunt around and these cops jumped out hard on us like they were ready to roll us all up. Then my man showed him the K2 pack and told him the blunt ain’t got no weed in it.” 

Chris says the police were visibly frustrated as they stormed off without searching anyone or making an arrest having no reason to search the crowd without evidence of illegal drugs being present. “As he got back in the car this cop was like, ‘Y’all’s killing us out here with this K2 bullshit’.”  How Philly police are altering their approach to K2 users since it was made officially illegal a few months ago is still unfolding.

Frustrations are running high in halfway houses for probationers as well. One halfway-house proprietor, who asked that his name not be used, said, “We found a bag of K2 on a resident early this year and honestly we didn’t know what the shit was. We had to look it up. When we saw that it was like weed, but it don’t test hot for weed, we decided to do an all-house search. Man, we turned up probably 100 bags of that shit. We had to completely empty the house.”

Allowing drugs, even legal highs, in a house full of felons dangerously destabilizes the operation. “So this one cat comes home all high on K2 and starts getting paranoid,” he says. “He’s yelling that somebody stole his iPod when his iPod’s sitting right there on the table in front of him. He became physically confrontational, and we almost had to put him out of here. We can’t have that in this kind of house.”

While K2 doesn’t test positive for THC, there is a drug test specifically for K2. However, the cost of the test—$50—is prohibitive for small, thinly funded halfway houses.

While the justice system’s war on drugs insists on abstinence from probationers, Rudy from North Philly feels that the simplest answer to the problem would be to legalize marijuana, as prohibition is what created the market for K2 in the first place. “You got dudes out here smoking blunts that they don’t even know what’s inside the wrap. That shit could be anything. You got people getting migraines, getting sick as a dog, blacking out.” Rudy says. “Weed is safe, it’s natural. Just let us smoke weed and we’ll just smoke weed.”

But for now Philly has the worst of both worlds: with pot illegal, the demand for K2 remains high; with most synthetic cannabinoids illegal, the supply of K2 is unregulated and unpredictable in its safety and effects. (Meantime, drug companies are scaling back on their R&D involving these newly classified Schedule 1 compounds—research that has shown promise against Alzheimer’s, to name only the most dire disease.) For Philly’s hustlers on probation, K2 smoking has become just another juke move in the cat-and-mouse game known as the drug war, as dealers who want to stay high as they work the corner, making a living the only way they’ve ever known, try to stay one step ahead of law enforcement’s efforts to shut them down.

Jeff Deeney is a Philadelphia social worker who writes about urban poverty and drug culture. He is a contributor to The Daily Beast/Newsweek; his last piece for The Fix was "The Crack House Chronicles."

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