Why K2 Is Still Hot in Philly

By Jeff Deeney 04/05/12

Despite new bans, the high cost of tests to detect myriad K2 strains means Philadelphia's hustlers can keep on two-in' .

K2 is a popular way to keep using after arrest.

In October The Fix reported on K2 synthetic marijuana taking hold in Philly’s street drug culture, through its appeal to drug dealers monitored by parole and probation departments. Drug abstinence—enforced by probation-ordered urine screens or outpatient treatment programs—is a compulsory feature of criminal justice monitoring. Needless to say, Philly’s hustlers, who measure days in blunts passed among crew members while working the corner, aren't happy about enforced abstinence once they’re busted. Enter K2, which has a crucial feature: while it mimics the effect of THC, it doesn’t actually contain THC. K2 isn’t one specific thing; the brand name covers many different synthetic strains of a THC-like substance that’s sprayed on organic material and smoked like weed. The lack of actual THC means it doesn’t trigger a positive drug test result. Word got out about this loophole and probationers flooded through it, driving a big market. Bans on synthetic drugs like K2 and the meth-like "bath salts" rushed through legislatures last year, but criminalization didn’t cut demand; it just moved K2 from behind the counter at the gas station to under the counter at the corner store.

It didn’t take long for street chatter about how half the city is duping their PO to reach the top of the chain; probation department directors started talking to the labs that do their drug testing about closing the K2 loophole. That’s proven harder—and pricier—than anticipated. The new K2 tests cost $35 each, and only screen for the five most common K2 strains; there are as many as 100 different strains, with new ones constantly developing, so that's hardly conclusive. And for a drug test to be admissible in court, a specimen must be retested using a highly refined process like gas chromatography-mass spectronomy—that's another $100 a pop. The tests’ costs are so high and budgets so tight that law enforcement hasn’t seriously implemented them. The system has looked the other way. So Philly’s K2 use has gone through the roof. 

This week, the director of one of Philly’s largest drug treatment centers, which monitors huge numbers of criminal justice clients for drug abstinence, told The Fix about an experiment his institution ran to gauge the extent of K2 abuse by clients who otherwise test negative and proclaim abstinence to counselors and probation officers. Out of 10 randomly-selected urine specimens tested, seven contained K2. Another indicator of K2’s popularity is that it's been christened by the streets—a sign that your drug of choice has truly arrived. “Two-in’”—as in, “He shouldn’t be driving, he’s been two-in’ all night”—is the new word on the corner. Just don’t use it in front of your probation officer.

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Jeff Deeney is a social worker, freelance writer and recovering addict in Philadelphia. He is a contributor to the Atlantic and has written for the Daily Beast, The Nation, and The Marshall Project. Follow Jeff on Twitter.