Editorial K2 overdoses a wake-up call to action
The scene on the historic New Haven Green last week resembled a dreadful movie about a deadly contagion. People were dropping so fast that paramedics could hardly keep up.
The cause was a potent batch of K2, a synthetic cannabinoid, that can cause rapid heart rates, vomiting and hallucinations.
Usually drug overdoses happen out of public view, behind closed doors or secluded places. The massive number of overdoses — more than 100 in 72 hours — between last Tuesday and Thursday were all the more shocking because they occurred mostly in a highly public place in the heart of downtown.
The problem could not be ignored, even by people who until then hadn’t heard of K2. Synthetic cannabinoid is nothing like “traditional” marijuana, according to Center on Addiction, a national nonprofit organization. It is a mixture of industrial chemicals sprayed on dried plant material and “packaged in colorful wrappers, nicknamed ‘poison packets.’” K2, sometimes also called Spice, was banned for sale in 2012.
Gov. Dannel Malloy rightly linked the K2 outbreak to the escalating opioid epidemic. The “vast majority” of those who overdosed last week also have opioid addiction, he said.
Last week’s crisis caught the attention of the national drug czar who came to New Haven Monday to meet with political leaders and medical and public safety responders. Jim Carroll, acting deputy director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, said the drug crisis is a nonpartisan issue that requires a multipronged approach of prevention, education, treatment, and enforcement of the dealers.
This is nothing new, though we appreciate the attention on this intractable problem. Municipal leaders, doctors, drug abuse and mental health counselors and others for years have been begging for a coordinated approach — and a level of funding to meet the need in all areas. Enforcement alone will not stop addiction, a chemical dependence. The wide distribution of Narcan, a drug that can reverse overdoses, will save lives but not stop addiction.
Federal legislation is being proposed to add $500 million to a $3.39 billion program to provide resources for mental health services, drug treatment and recovery. That is a useful step in addressing the national epidemic.
Connecticut needs better coordination, through one department, of the multipronged approach.
In New Haven, leaders are examining possible local actions, such as increasing police patrol and moving an elementary school bus stop off the Green. Though the total cost is yet unknown, dealing with the crisis has been an immense drain on resources.
Fortunately, no one died in the rash of overdoses last week. The 100-plus cases on and around the Green involved 47 people.
K2 is relatively cheap; drug dealers are preying on poor and homeless people. Shockingly, it was the 38th arrest for one of the three men charged in the New Haven outbreak, police said.
Stopping this cycle of drug dealing must be a priority, while providing appropriate services to the susceptible so they can return to healthy lives.