NEW YORK — Ten men were charged on Wednesday with conspiring to manufacture synthetic marijuana laced with dangerous chemicals and distributed to retailers throughout New York City’s five boroughs, fueling a public health crisis that’s national in scope.
The crackdown is the largest to date involving a substance widely known on the street as K2 or Spice and smoked like pot. New York and other parts of the country have seen an alarming spike in emergency room visits by homeless people and other users suffering from high blood pressure, hallucinations and psychotic meltdowns that can turn violent or deadly.
A federal indictment stemming from a yearlong investigation by the Drug Enforcement Administration and others alleges the defendants imported mass quantities of illegal synthetic compounds from China that included chemicals outlawed in the United States. The men mixed tea leaves with the chemicals before putting their product in brightly colored foil packets sold for $5 each under brand names like “AK-47,” ”Psycho” and “Green Giant,” court papers said.
The K2 sold over the counter in delis, head shops and other small businesses is “poison,” U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said at a news conference. “Despite sometimes being called synthetic marijuana, this stuff is not marijuana.”
The announcement of charges coincided with searches and inspections at warehouses and businesses suspecting of processing and selling the drug. Authorities have so far seized more than 200 kilograms of chemicals and at least 275,000 packets of K2 with a street value of up to $30 million, said Bharara.
The charges follow stories by The Associated Press and other news outlets describing dazed users openly smoking K2 on a busy street corner in East Harlem, with police stepping in only if they needed hospitalization because consumption isn’t against the law.
Use of synthetic marijuana resulted in 2,300 emergency room visits in New York state in a recent two-month period, health officials said. Meanwhile, calls to poison centers related to K2 increased 229 percent between January and May compared to the same period in 2014.
Six defendants were arrested Tuesday and were to appear in federal court in Manhattan later in the day. Four are fugitives.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the New York Police Department were part of the investigation.