K2, or "spice" is a synthetic chemical sprayed on various kinds of dried plant material and sold over-the-counter

By Alex Heigl
Updated July 15, 2016 04:35 PM
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Credit: Wendy Galietta/The Washington Post/Getty

Over the course of three days, 130 people overdosed on “K2,” a potent form of synthetic marijuana, in New York City and were hospitalized this week. Tuesday, 33 people were found in varying states of overdose in Brooklyn.

But the drug’s use is hardly confined to New York. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s weekly “Morbidity and Mortality Report,” released Thursday, reported a “dramatic increase” in the drug’s use over the past year, according to Dr. Jeffrey Brent, one of the report’s authors.

Here’s what you need to know about K2.

1. It’s way more potent than marijuana, and more unpredictable
Synthetic cannabinoids – K2 is also popularly known as “spice” – can be anywhere from two to 100 times as potent as the THC found in natural marijuana. The Drug Enforcement Agency has 15 varieties of K2 classified as Schedule 1 controlled substances, but the makers of the drug vary its exact molecular formula with each “batch,” effectively creating a loophole that they can continue to exploit – new varieties arrive as the government has caught up with the old ones. This varying “formula” is part of what makes the drug so dangerous.

2. Its effects can vary wildly
Usually smoked, the drug aspect of K2 isn’t the herbs itself, but rather a chemical sprayed on herbs, spices or other plant material. With a “good” batch, the effects of K2 are similar to marijuana, though the National Institute on Drug Abuse has identified a variety of effects related to the “bad batches,” including cardiovascular, renal and neuropsychiatric damage. Long-term, Brent noted, the chemicals can alter the DNA of an individual’s cells, leading to cancer or other unforeseen mutations.

3. It’s cheap
The drug is typically sold in corner stores in small packets, but on the street, a joint can go for a dollar or two. That means that, unfortunately, poorer communities, like East Harlem in Manhattan or the border of Bedford-Stuyvesant and Bushwick in Brooklyn, where the 33 overdoses occurred earlier this week, are hit hard by the drug.

4. Its victims are predominantly young males
Over a quarter of patients with severe adverse reactions to the drug were between the ages of 13 and 18 and 83 percent of them were male, according to the CDC. Fortunately the drug is rarely fatal – at least in the short-term – with only three deaths reported reported from 2010 and 2015.

5. It’s hit several states
New Hampshire declared a state of emergency related to K2 in August 2014 following 41 overdoses. Maryland and New York issued warnings about the drug at the state-wide level as well.