The Federal Bureau of Prisons Has a Synthetic Marijuana Problem

By Seth Ferranti 04/19/17

Incarcerated addicts stay ahead of the game by switching to synthetic drugs that won't show up on tests while officials scramble to shut down the supply. Seth Ferranti reports.

Prison guard at the gates.
Prisons are having a hard time detecting synthetic marijuana.

Federal prisons across the nation have a serious synthetic marijuana problem. It used to be that drugs like heroin and marijuana were smuggled into prisons regularly, but now with the proliferation of synthetic marijuana brands like K2 and Spice, prisoners have switched the game up.

The reasons are twofold. Primarily, it's because the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) doesn't test for synthetic marijuana. Prisoners are randomly tested for illegal narcotic use such as heroin and marijuana and getting a dirty urine is a 100 series write up, the most severe incident report. Sanctions include 60 days in Disciplinary Segregation, loss of good time, commissary, visiting and phone privileges up to one year. But synthetic marijuana doesn't show up in a urinalysis at all.

Secondly, if an inmate is caught in possession of K2 or Spice, it’s just a 300 series incident report. A 300 series is also used for tobacco possession, and results in significantly less severe sanctions against the offender. In effect, it's a slap on the wrist. Prisoners who struggle with addictions want to get high, even in prison. By switching their illicit smuggling ventures to K2 or Spice they’re lessening the consequences that they’ll face when caught.

“Here at FCI Forrest City in Arkansas there seems to be an abundance of this synthetic marijuana, called K2, floating around the whole prison compound,” a prisoner we’ll call Kevin tells The Fix. “Where marijuana is easily testable and tends to stay in one's system for weeks, K2 is virtually undetectable on the drug tests administered here. That makes it highly wanted and desired by those drug addicts who choose not to rehab here in prison.”

At most federal prisons a typical scene evolves: After the 9:30 pm count, the bathrooms and showers will be full of prisoners puffing away. With the problem reaching epidemic proportions in prisons nationwide, BOP administrators are trying to figure out a way to combat the problem, while simultaneously not admitting that it exists. Kevin says it can be hard to find an open shower stall to take a shower in because of the abundance of smokers getting high. On the recreation yard at dusk, small clouds of smoke form over the bleachers due to all the people smoking K2. With endless amounts of time and little fear of consequences, inmates are smoking nonstop. But K2 isn’t marijuana and the effects of the synthetic drug can vary depending on the person who smokes it.

“One individual got a little too high and proceeded to dance around like a ballerina,” Kevin tells us. “This individual was 300 plus pounds, no ballerina by any means. Then he freaked out and started yelling at the guards attempting to subdue him, ‘It's all y'alls fault!!!! You let it in, you bring it in, its all a conspiracy to get everyone to tell on each other.’ He got a medical trip. Another guy started hugging his bunk screaming like a banshee. As his homeboys tried to quiet and subdue him, it only got worse. Another med trip. Many have simply fallen and started slobbering, showing the whites of their eyes, now, that's a seizure, but it equals another med trip.”

Prison officials are required to take prisoners with problems that can’t be diagnosed or treated to the hospital when called for. And the medical trips add up, leading to an added expense that the BOP can’t afford with prisons already teeming at capacity. Even though not every K2 episode results in a seizure, they all must be treated as such, just in case it really is a seizure. But with so many guys flipping out, the BOP is looking for an answer to contain the K2 overdoses.

“What Forrest City is doing to stop the costs is throwing anyone who gets caught with K2 immediately into the hole,” Kevin says. “Charging them and shipping them to another prison. Any large money transfers to people who normally don’t have money are investigated. Even an individual who had money put on his books simply for the pizzas he made and sold was put in the hole and shipped. Any little thing and the administrative is reacting. 

“When an individual was busted in my unit yesterday the unit manager took the TV's away for two months. Of course that means they’re attempting to put pressure on us to tell, but that won’t happen. Directly after the town hall meeting when that was announced, the bathrooms and showers filled up. They don't call it dope because it makes you smart. There’s only one way for these smokers to quit and that’s when it runs out and they can’t find any on the yard.”

Kevin isn’t a big K2 smoker, but he’s tried it once or twice.

“I didn't like the way it made me feel,” he says. “It starts pulsing and merging all the different groups' conversations into one repeating and deafening sound. It’s not a drug for the weak minded. I've done so much meth though, been up for so many days, that I literally watched garden hoses turn to snakes, vacuum cleaners turn to tigers, and watched out my windows until I swore there were task force snipers in all of my trees. So a little bouncing sound in my ears is like child's play. If one chooses to do drugs in prison, then they most definitely are going to use on the streets. I don't have another bid in me. I’m done with all drugs and crime.”

Just like other drugs, K2 is entering the prison in all manner of forms and fashions. When smuggling drugs into the institution becomes your main focus, you’d be amazed at the ideas you can come [up] with to get the illicit substances in. Visitation is the main method. Prisoners swallow balloons full of K2 that their visitors bring and then throw up or defecate them out later. Others sneak packets of K2 in through their prison wallets. Guards bring in a lot of K2 also. They see it as something of a lesser evil, like tobacco, and figure they’ll make some easy money off of it. But the main way synthetic marijuana is coming in at Forrest City is over the fence.

“Campers or free world people throw packages over the recreation yard fence,” Kevin says. “I can tell you that this is the most common way. The fences here are low. It’s not like we’re a United States Penitentiary with massive walls. They can’t stop it either. Without being able to test for it, easily made money from it, and inmates always wanting to take a mind trip I would say it's here to stay. They might ship you or up your security level, but to an addict doing time that’s no detriment. I see dudes walking around with that glassy look in their eye, super paranoid and blitzed out of their mind. It’s like dazed and confused for real.”

And Forrest City isn’t the only BOP institution where the epidemic is flourishing. An inmate we’ll call Chris, who’s at FCI Beckley in West Virginia, tells The Fix that there’s a big problem with K2 and Suboxone coming in through the mailroom. He says it’s so prevalent that the whole mailroom is backed up as prison officials try to figure out how the synthetic drugs are coming in, where it’s coming from, and even what it is. That’s the thing with synthetic drugs, chemists and companies are making it and finding loopholes in the laws that they can exploit to make the drugs almost undetectable to modern testing and security measures.

“These kids love that shit,” Chris says. “They call it Deuce or Spice. They were taking a letter, one piece of paper and making a couple of thousand dollars off it. The K2 is liquid and sprayed on the letter. I swear though, the way they describe it, it sounds like PCP or Dust or something. The warden came in and told us that shit is dangerous. It’s becoming an issue at every institution. It’s crazy here.

“I talked to one dude and he said he hit it and he started rapping. He told me he never rapped in his life, but that was all he could do to not lose his mind. Then another dude smoked some and crawled under the bunk. When we got locked down this guy went totally fucking crazy. He kicked a C/O and went absolutely insane, screaming and running, all kinds of crazy shit. Another guy thought he was God and that the end of the world was coming, slobbering and acting like a five year old. It’s all bad man.”

With synthetic drugs becoming a problem in prison systems nationwide, it’s time to take a serious look at this epidemic, rectify it, and hold the pharmaceutical companies responsible. With prison officials seemingly at a loss and unable to stop the flow of synthetic drugs into our prisons, addicts are doing whatever they can to obtain the drugs. It's a dangerous environment for all involved.

More stringent regulations on Big Pharma, tighter security measures on what comes in and out of prisons, and more treatment programs for the addicts suffering in the midst of this epidemic are not only needed as soon as possible, but should be mandatory going forward in order to combat this growing problem.

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After landing on the US Marshals Top-15 Most Wanted list and being sentenced to a 25 year sentence in federal prison for a first-time, nonviolent LSD offense, Seth built a writing and journalism career from his cell block. His raw portrayals of prison life and crack era gangsters graced the pages of Don DivaHoopshype and VICE. From prison he established Gorilla Convict, a true-crime publisher and website that documents the stories that the mainstream media can’t get with books like Prison Stories and Street Legends. His story has been covered by The Washington PostThe Washington Times, and Rolling Stone.

Since his release in 2015 he’s worked hard to launch GR1ND Studios, where true crime and comics clash. GR1ND Studios is bringing variety to the comic shelf by way of the American underground. These groundbreaking graphic novels tell the true story of prohibition-era mobsters, inner-city drug lords, and suburban drug dealers. Seth is currently working out of St. Louis, Missouri, writing for The FixVICEOZY, Daily Beast, and Penthouse and moving into the world of film. Check out his first short, Easter Bunny Assassin at You can find Seth on Linkedin or follow him on Twitter.