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K2 and Corner Boys: Philly Flips Over Phony Pot

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. Philly police are struggling to deal with deal with its dangers.

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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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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: cannabinoid analogs, 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 the cannabinoids 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.”

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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