K2 Boulevard, a nickname for a stretch of Lexington Avenue between 124th and 125th Streets in East Harlem, doesn’t look like it used to in 2015.
The one block slice of Lex is dominated by a huge, NYPD Mobile Command Center that sits parked on the east side of the street.
When PIX11 returned to the site we discovered just over two years ago, in July 2015, we noticed the street seemed strangely barren of crowds — with barricades surrounding the large police vehicle. Small groups of people dotted the sidewalks, but there wasn’t a frequent blaring of ambulance sirens that we noticed in 2015, when K2 smokers were falling down in front of us, many suffering seizures.
K2, also known as Spice and by dozens of other brand names, is sold in colorful packages and filled with phony plant material that’s been sprayed with chemicals made in China. Smokers get a high that can spawn a very dangerous physical reaction throughout their body.
The rush of EMTs and paramedics to K2 Boulevard has slowed down.
“It’s a lot better,” said one Harlem resident we met on the block. “Now, it’s cleaner.”
But others noted K2 has not gone away, even though emergency room visits have dropped precipitously—ever since the NYPD cracked down on the activity and Mayor deBlasio signed laws in October 2015 that mandated big fines for store owners selling the $5.00 packages of fake pot.
“They’re still smoking it,” said local, Alfred Bernard. “On the downlow. I don’t know where they get it from. They call it ‘sticks.’”
According to Bernard, after bodega owners got too scared to risk their business—or cigarette—licenses, K2 users had to find other ways to get the synthetic cannabinoids.
“From what I heard, they’ll sell like 100 packs to one guy, and he’s like the distributor,” said East Harlem resident Anthony Marrero.
Marrero said the price of one pack of K2 went up from $3 or $5 a pack to $15.
“They make 20 joints out of it, and they sell it for $3. So they triple their money,” Marrero said.
Marrero said the stores, many of them once run by owners from Yemen, used to advertise the product in their windows. Then they had to hide it in plastic garbage bags under the counter or in a back room.
PIX11 reported in 2015 that many in the law enforcement community worried that massive profits from K2 sales were being sent overseas, possibly to fund terrorism.
During one day of national raids in 2014, the feds found evidence of $38 million dollars in wire transfers to Yemen at a Birmingham, Alabama bodega that was selling K2.
James Hunt—Special Agent in Charge of the New York division of the Drug Enforcement Administration—noted that emergency room visits are way down from K2 overdoses.
“Fads come and go. And in this case, I think it was a bit of a fad,” Hunt said.
Yet Hunt knows K2 is still being abused among some segments of the homeless and mentally ill communities. Young people also still buy it.
PIX11 decided to visit the old “K2 Boulevard” in East Harlem, after we traveled to a gas station 60 miles to the east, in Medford, Long Island.
In late September, the DEA busted business owner, Osman Ak, his brother and another employee who were running a mini-mart at the Eyup Gas and Convenience store—and keeping a stash of K2 in a cigar box.
“He’s been selling it upwards of 3 years,” Hunt said of Osman Ak.
All three men recently pleaded guilty to drug trafficking and could face up to 20 years in prison when they’re sentenced.
Hunt told PIX11 the K2 craze never rose to the level of the nation’s opioid crisis, which is killing more than a hundred people a day.