Elected officials and businesses join forces to halt deadly drug’s spread
Bodega owners across the Bronx have joined the call of elected officials to rein in dangerous synthetic marijuana, by pledging to stop selling it. The popular recreational drug has caused more than 700 emergency room visits in the borough since May.
So far, 1,700 bodegas have joined a moratorium on the sale of the drug known on the street as K2, Spice, Green Giant, Wicked X, Psyhco and Caution. The drug, which can cause hallucinations and other adverse health effects, can be bought at delis and bodegas for as little as $1, and has become especially popular among the homeless and among young people.
Some products have little or no label information or ingredient lists, warnings, and directions for use, as required by law.
“You don’t have to search for it like other drugs,” said Carla Lung, a Hunts Point resident who has seen the effects of the drug on people on her street. “They get violent. They want to hurt themselves or other people, and you can’t even talk to them.”
But the city is working to make acquiring K2 harder. In August, Gov. Cuomo tightened regulations so that anyone selling or possessing it could face a fine of $500 or 15 days in jail. Now The Bodega Association, the nonprofit advocacy group that represents the city’s bodegas, is pressuring its member businesses not to carry synthetic marijuana.
At an Oct. 5 press conference in front of the Bronx County Courthouse on the Grand Concourse, Attorney General Eric Schneiderman announced that his office has filed lawsuits against two dealers of so-called “designer drugs” from Rockland and Erie counties, for promoting and marketing K2 as legal, then selling it to businesses, including many in New York City.
The lawsuits require the companies to comply with federal law in naming the products they sell and listing the ingredients, along with providing warnings.
State Senator Jeffrey Klein, who represents Hunts Point, said he would continue to push for legislation to criminalize the drug’s sale and to bring the state’s law in line with federal law “to stop unscrupulous chemists from tweaking formulas to evade the law.”
The Bodega Association’s president, Ramon Murphy, agreed to the pledge.
“I see young people buy the K2, and when they use it, they go crazy,” Murphy said. “We understand any store selling it is a danger to the community.”
Recently, the group brought bodega owners “K2 is Not Sold Here” signs to post in their shops. Some did so, but others declined.
Murphy cautioned, however, that he has limited influence over store owners’ decision to rein in the drug. Police must make sure bodegas are complying, he said.
“Any members from our organization selling K2, as soon as we find out, they’re not part of us,” he said.
Even so, Murphy added, many manufacturers of synthetic marijuana sidestep the law, regularly changing the chemical composition of their products to include ingredients not yet on the city’s banned substances list.
“The problem with synthetic marijuana is the identification of the chemicals, they’re not really classified as illegal” said Bronx Assistant DA Rene Aponte.
Many violent crimes Aponte has prosecuted recently, such as a recent case of a teenager choking his mother, are ultimately traced back to K2.
Along with bodegas, corner stores, delis, smoke shops and even some grocery stores sell the drug.
Police will be conducting more inspections of local stores, said District Manager Rafael Salamanca of Community Board 2, who is also the president of the 41st Precinct Community Council. Any business caught selling K2 could get their tobacco and lottery licenses revoked, he said.
But some are skeptical, suspecting businesses will continue to sell the drug rolled into “loosies,” similarly to cigarettes.
“Stores are slick to the game, they don’t display it anymore,” said Community Board 2’s youth committee chairman, Larry Robinson. “You can’t buy it unless the store owner knows you.”
On a recent weekday afternoon on the busy stretch of Southern Boulevard between Hunts Point and Westchester avenues, there was no sign of synthetic marijuana being sold on the shelves in the bodegas. In the front window at 931 Deli Grocery, the “K2 Is Not Sold Here,” sign hung. The store’s owner, Alicia Fernandez, said she was happy to display the message for all to see.
“That’s not the way I want to make money,” said Fernandez, adding she’s used to seeing people“naked in the street,” looking like “they can kill someone” while under the influence of K2.
At Lucky 1 Express Deli on 163rd Street, an employee said the store never sold synthetic marijuana. The owner said he considered it “bad karma.”
“But people come in all of the time and say ‘you need to get this,’” said Sonny Gonzalez, an employee.
At the Southern Boulevard Deli and Grocery, an employee, Hamed Algazaly, said he used to sell K2, but has since stopped.
“It only brings stupid people,” he said.
Outside the bodega, a group of teenagers was hanging out.
“I was bugging out,” said a 16 year-old boy, who admitted to using the drug. “I thought a penny was a roach,” he said. When asked if K2 has gotten harder to buy recently, he laughed.
“You can get it at any corner store,” he said.