Austin EMS: K2 emergencies drop as anti-drug effort takes hold
Medics view K2, which is sometimes dipped in embalming fluid or bug spray, as a kind of poison
AUSTIN, Texas — In the spring of 2017, the streets of downtown Austin were heavy with the sound of sirens from ambulances scurrying to the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless, the epicenter of a growing public health crisis.
Medics would often find residents of the shelter having bad reactions to K2, a once-legalized synthetic marijuana with unpredictable consequences for those who smoked it. Patients would be lying on the ground convulsing, many of them struggling to breathe. Others were upright, but walking sluggishly. The smell of the drug — something like burnt carpet — would make the air drifting around the corner of East Seventh and Neches streets unpleasant to breathe.
K2 became such a problem in April 2017 that paramedics with Austin-Travis County EMS ended up treating 457 patients that month — an average of about 15 per day.
Two years later, the problem still exists, but the drug's presence has greatly diminished.
EMS treated 41 patients for K2-related symptoms in January, the fewest in a month since paramedics treated that same number of patients in July 2014. The patient total was again 41 from Feb. 1 to 25, the most recent available data shows.
The drop followed ups and downs in 2018 when monthly K2-related incidents were as few as 90 in October and as many as 214 in January.
Local officials say the change is the result of a coordinated effort to better educate users about the harms of the drug and to lock up dealers with lengthy prison sentences.
"I'm pleased with the results," said Austin police Detective Lonnie Gall of the organized crime division. "Most of the heavy lifting has come from patrol officers who are building cases and lab technicians doing complicated work of testing it."
Compared to other street drugs, K2 is particularly dangerous because of the many unknowns that come with it: from the varied chemical quantities that might make up a particular batch to the array of responses someone might experience from smoking it. Some users turn manic and others mellow to the point they can't be awakened. Others lapse into seizures, or choke, or become unconscious. Decreased body temperatures can result in hypothermia. Vomiting is common.
Medics view K2, which is sometimes dipped in embalming fluid or bug spray, as a kind of poison. But as recently as 2011, it was available in smoke shops as a legal alternative to marijuana. After a rash of overdoses, lawmakers stepped in and passed legislation to criminalize it, but the move unintentionally opened the door for drug dealers to seize the market and peddle K2 on the streets.
Priced at only $5 for a stick — the equivalent of a marijuana joint — K2 use became increasingly common, particularly affecting homeless people and others searching for a cheap high.
"You never know who's selling you what out there," EMS Capt. Jason Beggs said. "You're taking something from somebody and trusting it's the correct product. When you go to a store, there are ingredients on a package for a reason."
In a five-month period ending in April 2017, paramedics responded to 1,796 incidents involving K2, a number that Beggs said taxed the city's call response system.
Outside of the ARCH last week, three residents say people in the area still use K2 but nowhere near the level from two years ago. The drug's too dangerous, they say.
"F--- no," a middle-aged man named Roger said.
The dip in incidents this year was preceded by a big bust at the end of 2018. No one can definitively connect the two, "but it's a pretty big coincidence," Gall said.
Police executed a federal arrest warrant in December for an apartment in Southeast Austin and discovered a robust K2 operation. Approximately 15 kilograms of suspected processed K2, 16 kilograms of raw powder suspected to be synthetic cannabinoid and 75 kilograms of untreated damiana leaf — with a combined street value of $80,000 — were seized from the Burton Drive address.
Police say the tenant, Keith Nunley, obtained the raw powder from a black market lab in China. Charges in the case are pending as lab technicians run tests to confirm the make-up of the substances. Nunley was already facing two federal charges related to dealing K2 and stemming from a separate bust in May 2018. He is set for trial on June 3.
A review of federal court records shows Austin K2 dealers are getting lengthy prison sentences. Charles Herd, who investigators determined had been supplying the drug to many major dealers in town, pleaded guilty and was sentenced to nine years in April 2018. His wife, Juanita Price, was sentenced to one year and one day in prison. Sidney Franklin, another man nabbed in the investigation who police say was effectively Herd's top lieutenant and delivered K2 around the ARCH, got five years.
Guilty pleas from a separate investigation led to sentences of 60 and 33 years in federal prison for Obdule Ware and Mothanna Yousef, respectively.
A case is pending against six defendants who were indicted in connection to a traffic stop in November 2017 when Austin police, responding to a tip, found 74 kilograms of K2 being transported from Houston. The street value was estimated at more than $1 million. One of the defendants, Christopher Elizondo, has not been apprehended and is considered a fugitive.
In 2017, two people charged in separate cases with selling K2 took their chances with a trial in Travis County district court. A jury convicted one of them and the other one pleaded guilty during the course of the trial. Both men were sentenced to five years in prison.
"Once we tried that first case, word got out we were serious," said Guillermo Gonzalez, the director of the Travis County district attorney's trial division. Now, he said, most defendants suspected of selling K2 are pleading guilty. Their pretrial bond conditions often include a provision stating they cannot hang around the ARCH.
There is one group of people connected to the K2 epidemic who won't be charged: the users.
"We're focusing our resources and time on the people preying on the people who are addicted to this drug," Gall said.
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