Authorities in New Haven, Connecticut, say they’re still not sure what was in a batch of synthetic marijuana, known as K2, that has caused nearly 100 overdose cases in the city over the last two days.
The overdoses started late Tuesday night and Wednesday morning in the historic New Haven Green, a city park that lies in the shadow of Yale University. It was just a few at first. By Wednesday morning, police were dealing with as many as nine overdose cases in one hour. Lisa Ostrowsky is one of the regulars who frequent the green.
“Everybody was dropping like flies…Everybody was ODing and convulsing and having seizures and they looked like zombies out here.”
People got the K2 from someone who walked through the green that night handing it out – as if it were a free sample. Police say they’ve arrested several suspects. Ostrowsky says some of her friends were still in the hospital as of Thursday afternoon, and it’s been hard for the community in and around the park.
“We’re all pulling together, saying prayers and hopefully that there’s an end to this. I hope so because this green’s never used to be like this.”
Seventy-six people were hospitalized in the first 24 hours. And there were more overdoses on the green throughout the day Thursday.
Dr. Sandy Bogucki, with Yale-New Haven Hospital, says no deaths have been reported from the outbreak, though some people were hospitalized two or three times from repeatedly smoking the tainted K2 throughout the day.
“People who smoked it or ingested it in some way tended to go down very fast, almost right in their tracks. The effects did not last long, and they were able to be discharged in most cases from the hospital fairly soon, which meant they were able to go the green to seek another high.”
As Bogucki was speaking at a press conference at city hall Thursday afternoon, emergency workers were responding to more reports of overdoses on the green across the street. They were joined by medical clinicians and social workers. Alison Cunningham, who works with a homeless shelter called Columbus House, spends a lot of time working with the homeless population on the New Haven Green.
“There’s some drug traffic that goes on right there. There are a lot of dealers that come into town and prey upon very vulnerable people. We know that. We all know that.”
Cunningham has seen outbreaks on the green before. But she says she’s never seen anything like what happened this week.
“K2’s been around for a while. What was going around yesterday was something different. And it felt surreal to be on the green yesterday and watch this happening.”
Investigators still aren’t sure what was different about the K2 that hit the New Haven Green starting Tuesday night. Dr. Kathryn Hawk, an expert in drug addiction at Yale-New Haven Hospital, explained that “K2 is an example of a synthetic cannabinoid, something called ‘fake marijuana.’ Some of them are legal, and some of them are not legal.”
You can even buy some versions of K2 at gas stations because distributors keep changing the ingredients to keep them just on the verge of legal. Hawk says they’re part of a large category of chemical compounds that can cause a wide range of effects, based on what’s in them.
“Starting with sleepiness or being kinda chilled out. Agitation, psychosis, delirium. All of these have been reported in types of synthetic cannabinoids.”
Hawk says at first investigators were worried the K2 might have been mixed with the synthetic opioid fentanyl, which has been responsible for tens of thousands of overdose deaths in the country. The DEA didn’t find any fentanyl in tests of samples of the drug. But even as investigators have scrambled to solve the mystery, the overdoses have continued.