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Why the Crackdown on K2 Among Downtown's Homeless Won't Work

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Since the beginning of December, Dallas Fire and Rescue has received more than 200 calls to deal with people who are, apparently, on one of the many substances colloquially known as K2. In media reports, the calls are often said to be addressing overdoses, but the behavior described often also sounds like what could be described as just a really bad trip. People apparently suffering the effects of the drug can be seen stumbling around downtown, usually talking to themselves. Eventually K2 users sit or lie down and pass out, which seems to generate the most police attention. 

As the Dallas Police Department has increased its efforts to address quality of life issues in downtown following a spate of robbery reports and conflict between residents and the homeless, the K2 problem has become the third leg of the stool. Police say dealers are selling the drug — often mislabeled as synthetic marijuana — to downtown's homeless, who seek out K2 because it's cheap and doesn't show up on most commonly administered drug tests.

Stefanie Jones at Drug Policy Alliance says the manufacture of synthetic cannabinoids began in research labs. When it began being consumed by the public, legislators at the federal and local levels made efforts to outlaw the chemical formula that created the synthetic high. They did outlaw the original formula — K2 is just a brand name, and Jones says calling all synthetic cannabinoids "K2" is like calling all tissues "Kleenex" — but manufacturers moved on to a different formula. That's happened again and again, so many times that those making the drugs know less and less about their product, which is made by spraying plant matter with chemicals, usually by someone in China, as shown in the Vice News-produced video below.

When people use synthetic cannabinoids, the high they get is based on a reaction by the CB1 receptor in the brain — same as marijuana. The way the two drugs influence that receptor are different, however. Synthetic cannabinoids bind fully to the receptor, activating it with maximum efficiency. Marijuana only partially binds to the receptor, resulting in a less efficient, and safer, high.

Because the science of making K2 is so inexact, Jones says, even a single packet of synthetic cannabinoids — they're often labeled as "potpourri" or "incense" and sold at head shops or gas stations — can contain material of wildly different potency. As such, when a homeless person downtown buys a joint for a buck or two, he or she has no idea what kind of high he or she is about to experience. That, says, Jones, makes synthetic cannabinoids far more dangerous than marijuana. In people with pre-existing mental illness, like many of Dallas' homeless, synthetic cannabinoids can exacerbate previously stable psychiatric disorders, according to a 2011 research study published in Current Psychiatry .

Two men were arrested by DPD last week for dealing synthetic cannabinoids, something that was possible because of a newly effective state law that banned one of the more popular synthetic cannabinoids currently on the market. Moving forward, Jones says it's difficult to imagine any law, however, that would effectively ban synthetic cannabinoids entirely. Lawmakers in England are currently trying to do just that — by banning all psychoactive substances — but are struggling with how to write legislation that would exempt things like coffee or alcohol — both of which are psychoactive substances.

The best fix, Jones says, would be to address the needs of the vulnerable populations that seek out cheap drugs. Outlawing only the drugs themselves can't provide a permanent solution.

"Synthetic cannabinoid users might not have houses, might not have jobs and might have mental issues. It just calls into questions the way we use resources for the homeless population. Those are the kind of things that make these populations vulnerable to this substance, and it's far, far easier to focus on the substance itself. I'm not trying to say [synthetic cannabinoids] are not causing problems, especially in downtown areas, but using resources on the drug itself is kinda chasing the tail of the problem," Jones says.

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