Synthetic weed is turning Minneapolis users into violent zombies

Rob Dobi

Rob Dobi

There’s a clamor of men in dark jackets waiting at the corner of 10th Street and Currie Avenue in downtown Minneapolis, sucking down cigarettes beneath power lines draped with weather-beaten high-tops. They stand with their backs pressed against the cold facade of a granite tower where the word “HOPE” hangs in chunky capital letters, killing time while passing cars kick up snow and slush.

The Salvation Army’s Harbor Light Center is the only place people can go for basic overnight shelter without having to prove they’re sober. There are no drug screens at the door, based on the belief that total abstinence is neither a realistic nor humane price for sanctuary from the cold. With that comes the caveat that addictions, with all their baggage, must not threaten the delicate peace of nearly 400 people packed nightly into a four-story community of transient faces.

Last fall, when program director Trish Thacker arrived at Harbor Light, an outbreak of the bizarre street drug K2 in Hennepin County sent 177 people to the hospital in the span of three weeks, a spontaneous spike that averaged out to one overdose a day in 2017.

Compared with 153 opioid-related deaths in the entirety of the county the previous year, the destruction wrought on Minneapolis by this little understood “synthetic marijuana” came as a major shock. Police busted half a dozen alleged dealers, but so far in 2018, the number of K2 overdoses has doubled, according to Hennepin Emergency Medical Services.

Even more alarming for Thacker was how it struck the hubs of Minneapolis’ homeless—Catholic Charities in Phillips, the detox center at 18th and Chicago, and Harbor Light downtown.

The drug would instantly seize control of its victims and cause them to lash out in intensely aggressive, erratic, and self-destructive ways. Fights would break out on multiple floors at the same time, Thacker says, spreading security thin. Once she watched a man, restrained from attacking another, appear to pop his arm out of its socket in his determination to keep swinging.

Synthetic marijuana, which has no relation to natural marijuana, refers to a class of highly potent lab-designed chemicals sprayed on anything smokable.

Synthetic marijuana, which has no relation to natural marijuana, refers to a class of highly potent lab-designed chemicals sprayed on anything smokable. Christopher Smith/TNS/Newscom

Terron Williams, who has managed security at Harbor Light going on six years, is as wise as anyone to the normal ebb and flow in the street use of illicit drugs. With marijuana, people would smoke and peace out. Heroin, they’d nod off. The unpredictability of K2 was a different monster.

Sitting at the front desk, scanning the security reels, Williams would watch people hit their pipes, fall over, and crack their heads on the brick steps of the shelter. One day he stepped outside to find a client sweating and straining, having wedged himself hard against the side of the building to keep the walls from crumbling down.

Some clients did K2 every day, Williams says, foaming at the mouth, lying on the sidewalk, flailing against paramedics who come to the rescue. Sometimes the K2 is laced with PCP or embalming fluid, which leaves users with permanent brain damage.

“They go the hospital, and get back and do the same thing,” Williams says. “That’s what makes it dangerous. When you can hit it and pass straight out and you hit your head on something and break your head open, and when the ambulance comes you fight the ambulance because you don’t wanna go?”

Williams tries to talk them off. It changes the “sweetest guys in the world” into completely different people.

Mostly, they do it to cheat probation officers. Synthetic marijuana, manufactured with ever-changing chemical profiles, doesn’t show up on traditional drug tests. They use for the same reasons anyone gets high, Thacker says: to cope, to escape, to find relief from life’s hardships that weigh heaviest on the homeless, who have a higher incidence of mental health problems and chemical dependency to start with.

The dealers are only too aware. Like buzzards, the same people keep selling odorless, undetectable K2 on the street while off-duty police stand inside the doors. Before Harbor Light asked for the removal of the metered parking spots out front, dealers would sit in their cars and preside over an open-air drug market. Williams would chase them off, and they’d amble right back.

Clients who cause repeat disturbances are placed on behavioral contracts, a final warning before getting kicked to the curb. Once they’re banned from Harbor Light, there’s nowhere else to go. To forestall that, the shelter purchased advanced urine analysis kits that catch some of the chemicals commonly found in K2. It’s considering hiring a security company to drive around the building this summer as a deterrent.

The spike last fall caused a brief uproar. But Williams believes the problem is only getting worse as the days grow warmer.


The Elusive High

People have always craved the effects of marijuana, the pain-relieving benefits and psychotropic euphoria. Despite the outsized criminalization, and anti-drug propaganda, users are forever seeking that high because the effects are so desirable, the side effects seemingly negligible.

Pharmaceutical companies, pragmatically interpreting public demand and anticipating correctly the remunerative opportunities for medical use, began to develop synthetic cannabinoid programs in the 1980s. They cooked up chemical compounds in their labs which, when ingested, would bind with brain cells equipped with cannabinoid receptors and mimic the effects of real weed.

The idea was that such chemicals, as an alternative to addictive opioids and illegal marijuana, could help patients undergoing chemotherapy to eat and control their pain.

But the experiments were lackluster. The synthetic cannabinoids were tested on animals to mixed results. Meanwhile, states began to legalize natural marijuana, and drug companies didn’t think it made much sense to continue investing millions—at times billions. None of the chemicals were ever used for a legitimate commercial purpose.

Yet their methods were immortalized in scientific journals, which were purchased by opportunistic drug dealers who studied closely the references to unnatural potency, while ignoring the total absence of data on toxicity. These lab-designed drugs were never tested on humans in a clinical setting. No one really knows how poisonous they are. But that didn’t matter to distributors, who saw only a golden formula for stronger drugs and more cash.

K2 doesn’t take much to produce. Professor David Ferguson of the University of Minnesota’s Center for Drug Design describes the process as opening a garage or storage unit, ordering some laboratory fume hoods, and buying the basic chemical building blocks off the dark web to be shipped through UPS or FedEx. Dealers follow the procedures published by the world’s top chemists, and spray it on herbs, grass, sawdust, whatever it takes to make it smokable.

“They’ll put all sorts of things in them that have extreme psychotropic effects,” Ferguson says. “People will think they’re getting high, but well, actually, you’re having a schizophrenic episode.”

It used to be that head shops would stock synthetic marijuana under a variety of sobriquets—K2, Spice, Scooby Snax, AK-47, 24 Karat Gold, Legal Weed. They’d hurt people, but they were difficult to outlaw because the web is teeming with thousands of shapeshifting chemical analogs. Their structure would follow a certain molecular scaffold, in which the principal atoms formed a telltale meatball and only the spaghetti substructures that wrap around would vary.

The DEA would ban one, only to have another instantly take its place. Prosecution required escorting juries upon a leap of reason, convincing them that technically legal drugs were just as bad as the illegal ones, and that distributors knew it.

In 2014 the DEA raided the Duluth head shop the Last Place on Earth, which made tens of thousands of dollars a day selling synthetic marijuana to hordes of customers who would wait in line for 30 minutes at a time. Addicts would hit these products all day long in 10-minute intervals, selling plasma to afford the habit.

The ensuing trial was like the holy grail of synthetic marijuana takedowns. Owner Jim Carlson’s lawyers raised hell over how these drugs were originally created in legitimate laboratories, that he’d made sure to discontinue products as soon as their active compounds were banned, and that he had no control over people who chose to smoke products labeled “pipe cleaners” and “potpourri.” Yet the prosecution prevailed, showing how Carlson repackaged bulk quantities of synthetic marijuana from California into smaller bags for retail, encouraged his employees to smoke it and record their experiences, and advised undercover officers about its ability to subvert drug tests.

Carlson was ultimately sentenced to 17 years imprisonment, and Minnesota passed a law that went beyond its federal counterpart to ban copycat synthetics.

Nevertheless, stores continue to stock synthetic marijuana, says special agent Ken Solek of the DEA’s Minneapolis-St. Paul district. They keep it behind the counter, available for sale to those who know what to ask for.

“They see new ones come out on the market and you try to push to have them listed [as illegal],” says Ferguson of the U of M. “Unless it’s a big problem, we tend not to do anything though—a bus crash, a train accident, a famous athlete gets caught with it, or young people begin to die.”


The faces of Guernica

Last fall a young woman, 19 and a recent high school graduate, found herself roaming Nicollet Mall the way she and her friends would do every day after school. She’s a vivacious talker, a bright-eyed, twiggy fashionista with a vision of opening up her own business with a degree from the Minneapolis Community and Technical College. She asked not to be named.

A boy she knew from high school offered her a hit from his blunt. No stranger to marijuana, she accepted.

Within a matter of seconds, the world burned with vibrancy before everything turned upside-down. Waves of paralyzing fear rolled over her, switching off motor controls and taking her mind hostage. She felt like she was conscious but unconscious. Her hand looked big, her arm small. Her head ballooned, her legs shrunk into reedy tendrils as her body began to seep into the ground. It felt like a million demonic entities were swooping in and out of her, while all around strangers’ faces stretched and jumbled like a scene out of a Picasso painting. She couldn’t feel her heart beat.

She remembers the scream of the ambulance that came, and strangers sticking her with a needle that made her pass out.

She woke in the hospital with a tube down her throat, cheeks swollen like a squirrel’s. It would be two days before she was discharged. Friends said she’d convulsed, vomiting white foam. She was told her heart stopped.

The woman’s eyes well with tears as she recounts the experience. “The scariest thing I’ve ever been through. The kind of stuff I saw, nobody would want to see.”

About a month after her hospitalization, she says K2 made her cousin run out of his house naked and across the street, where his mother found him crouched behind a trash can, masturbating.

She can only imagine why the boy from school would give her K2. Maybe it was just to give her a taste in case she reacted well and wanted to buy more, or maybe just to see a show. She tried to pick a fight with him near Fourth and Hennepin the next time she saw him, demanding to know.

“He didn’t have no remorse, nothing,” she says. There were lots of people around. He shrugged and insisted he’d warned her it was K2. “I was like, ‘Whatever you do, don’t buy from him. He’s crazy. He’s gonna offer you something and he’s gonna tell you it’s your fault.’”

Months afterward, she acknowledges responsibility for taking the blunt. She says the trauma of that episode scared her back into getting serious about college.

“I’m kind of glad I went through it, so I could tell people what I experienced on it. My advice is if you wanna smoke pot, buy it from someone you know. You could go to the hospital like me. You could die from it. It’s really bad. It’s really, really horrible.”


Russian Roulette

A snowy spring brings a breath of amnesty from the K2 pandemonium.

As an April blizzard blanketed the city, Hennepin EMS deputy chief Mike Trullinger scrolled through the emergency calls in his scanner to find a litany of medical emergencies—nothing too different from life’s ordinary procession of flus and falls, spontaneous labor and natural death. A relief.

Trullinger is a veteran paramedic with more than 30 years in the service and a pulse on the baseline use of deadly opiates and amphetamines in Hennepin County, their usual expressions and basic treatments. But when K2 first appeared on the scene in its current, ultra-potent form, paramedics didn’t know what they were dealing with, he says.

Physiologically, overdose patients were alternately stuporous and agitated, with blood pressures and body temperatures vacillating like a sine wave. They’d tremble and seize, fall and sustain bloody injuries, run through traffic and hide from help. Small groups of people would collapse all at once, and separate ambulances for each patient would leave their designated coverage areas for the same pocket of the city.

Their aggression complicates the work of paramedics, who would have to wrestle them into handcuffs under the scrutiny of disbelieving bystanders pointing phones. To avoid contact with potentially infectious blood and frothy saliva, emergency responders would cover patients’ heads in spit hoods, which to the untrained eye resemble plain plastic bags. To prevent patients from breaking apart their own muscles fighting restraints, paramedics would knock them out with small doses of Versed, a hypnotic, or Ketamine, a horse tranquilizer.

“Because they’re so violent,” Trullinger says. “And we know they don’t mean it. I can’t even imagine what it must look like to have these people come at you, taking you to the mother ship. Until they’re lucid again, most of these people will have no recollection, and they’ll go out and reuse within hours sometimes.”

At the start of the month, disturbing reports from Chicago warned that people were dropping dead from a new variant of synthetic marijuana. Cooks had thrown blood thinners into the mix, which were causing users to cough up blood and bleed from the eyes, nose, and ears.

“If it’s there, it probably won’t be long until it hits the streets here,” Trullinger says. “Imagine wrestling with someone that’s being combative and now you’ve got that. It’s like, really? We need that on top of everything else?”

In the hospital, doctors battle to keep patients alive. There’s no antidote to synthetic marijuana, the way Naloxone reverses opioid overdose, so their methods boil down to old-fashioned emergency medicine and advanced cardiac life support. Keep them breathing, keep them calm, and in time their livers will clear the drug.

Some patients, once resuscitated and aware that their K2 landed them in the hospital rather than a more desirable state, will hand over their drugs to researchers.

Dr. Jon Cole of Minnesota Poison Control analyzed samples and found they were all consistent with an obscure Japanese-made compound. His assessment of what happened in Minneapolis, which he presented at a national toxicology conference in Washington, D.C. this month, comprises the world’s clinical research on this drug. No one else had studied it.

The virtual vacuum of medical literature poses a unique challenge for physicians. New drugs hit the streets faster than medical journals can disseminate studies, so in the beginning, Cole says he and his trainees spent hours listening to podcasts on Erowid, an unconventional online database of psychoactive plants and chemicals. It’s run by a pair of scientists who have assumed the monikers of Earth and Fire, and conduct interviews with drug users.

It’s hard to see the full scope of Minneapolis’ K2 problem without several years’ worth of overdose tracking. But with the way the drug is cooked now, using compounds ever increasing in potency, first responders are tallying the morbidities as dealers continue to push the myth of “synthetic marijuana,” a marketing gimmick that invokes the image of a relatively benign high.

“I don’t think any of us in the emergency medicine or toxicology community are ever sure what we’re seeing when we see K2,” Cole says.

For poison questions, call Minnesota Poison Control: 1-800-222-1222