Carlos | September 14, 2015
The current frenzy surrounding synthetic cannabinoids, often called K2 or Spice, has me reflecting on my own history using the drug.
NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton recently described K2 users as “crazy” individuals who are “impervious to pain” and possess “superhuman strength.” My experience was nothing like that. I turned to K2 because I needed to cope with anxiety, and I’d lose my housing and be sent back to prison if my regular drug tests found me to be using marijuana.
When I was released from prison in 2014, I had been in recovery from heroin use for three years, the length of my incarceration. I was placed at a three-quarter house run by the nefarious NarcoFreedom, whose owners are now under indictment for fraud and corruption, among other charges. Like many of my neighbors, I was mandated to a methadone program I did not need as a requirement of living there.
After several years of not using opiates I did not want to go back to methadone, but I also did not want to be homeless. I went along with it, taking the smallest dosage possible.
While I had not been using heroin, I had been using marijuana. I do not view my marijuana use as recreational. It helps tremendously with my anxiety, for which I would otherwise have to take psychiatric medications that have terrible side effects. Marijuana always worked better, allowing me to function in a way I otherwise could not.
But I knew I could not go to my parole officer or the methadone clinic and explain that I was using marijuana medicinally.
So I turned to K2, which everyone told me would not come up on a drug test, and for me, at least, didn’t.
It didn’t make me violent or psychotic. It gave me an initial pot-like high, and then a deep nod, a heavy sleeping sensation.
But it worsened my anxiety issues and gave me nausea, diarrhea and other symptoms that felt a lot like a did when I was withdrawing from heroin use. And I was sleepy all the time while I was using it.
I never saw anyone become violent on K2, just dopey — like when you look in their eyes, they look off. But the brands are all different, and, of course, a lot of the people using it are also drinking or dealing with other issues.
I know people who used K2 once or twice and never again, so I do not believe it is always addictive, but it was for me. I could not turn to parole for help because I feared a violation and a return to prison. I could not turn to NarcoFreedom, because I was afraid they would throw me out on the street if they found out I was using K2. So I had to get off of it myself.
Since the drug made me experience heroin-withdrawal-like symptoms, I tried increasing my methadone dose. That helped, and I returned to my old medicine, marijuana.
Together it worked. I stopped using K2 and returned to marijuana, which I hide by flushing my system with a drink before getting tested. I still fear getting sent back to prison for my marijuana use, but I do not want to go back to K2 or any of the other drugs I have battled with in my past.
At a recent meeting with VOCAL-NY, a community organizing group for drug users, we talked about the issue of K2 and I began to understand how common my story. Many users battle with mental health issues and homelessness and are turning to K2 to avoid a positive drug test for marijuana that can lead to prison, homelessness, loss of child custody or other punishments.
All the talk from public officials portraying users as dangerous and psychotic won’t solve the K2 problem. The first thing officials need to do is listen to users and learn why and how they are using K2. Then, they should stop punishing drug users and instead help those who want to use less or stop completely.
The city and state should also revise policies that penalize individuals for marijuana use. If both Governor Cuomo and Mayor de Blasio acknowledge that low-level marijuana possession should not lead to an arrest, then why should personal use bar people from housing or social services, or trigger a trip back to prison?
Finally, New York needs to allow other conditions to be treated with medical marijuana beyond the ten currently approved ones and ultimately end marijuana prohibition altogether so that no one feels forced to use much more dangerous substances like K2.
Carlos, a Bronxite, is a member of VOCAL-NY, a grassroots organization that builds power among people impacted by HIV/AIDS, the drug war, and mass incarceration.