Austin police have charged 36 people as part of a three-month investigation targeting the sale and distribution of the synthetic drug K2, also known as spice and kush, to people downtown.
Ten people were arrested Monday in connection with the operation, according to Austin police Lt. Oliver Tate with the narcotics unit. Five other suspects were already in custody on other charges and 21 are on the loose, Tate said.
All are charged with possession of a controlled substance with intent to distribute, police said. The charge is a first-degree felony punishable by up to 99 years in prison.
The operation to crack down on people peddling K2 in the area is far from over, Tate said.
Most of the 36 people “are either users or low-level people who just happened to pass (the drug) off,” he said. “The major people, the distributors, those aren’t necessarily people who are in the Austin area. That’s why we’re working with agencies on the federal level, the state level and the local level in other cities.”
Austin-Travis County Emergency Medical Services receives about 145 calls a month about people who are having adverse reactions to K2, said EMS Cmdr. Mike Benavides. The symptoms range from people being combative to being catatonic to having seizures.
Austin police are working with the FBI and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to track down where the K2 in Austin is coming from, said Austin police Cmdr. Troy Officer, who leads the Organized Crime Division.
Police believe people all over the country are purchasing the ingredients online from China, Officer said. These chemicals are then sprayed on plant matter and distributed as K2 throughout the U.S. The drug is typically ingested through smoking.
The chemical makeup of K2 often changes, making it an unpredictable, dangerous drug, Officer said. In recent years, paramedics have treated hundreds of people on the streets of downtown Austin for K2-related symptoms that have ranged from hallucinations, seizures and violent behavior to low blood pressure mixed with a low heart rate, a deadly combination.
At least two people have died from the effects of K2 in Austin, records show. In March 2013, Roger Bateman Jr., 34, was found dead in a hallway at a South Austin halfway house, and last June, witnesses saw Larry Truitt, 60, walking on Seventh Street when he hunched over and collapsed, officials have said.
“The guys who make this drug are predators,” Officer said. “They’re in it for the money and no other reason. They could care less about the health of the general public.”
Officer said it is incorrect to refer to K2 as “synthetic marijuana” because its side effects are more dangerous than marijuana’s.
“This is no more marijuana than if I put bleach in a martini glass and called it a cocktail,” Officer said.
The 36 charges come after Austin police began an investigation in December in which they deployed undercover cops near the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless to spot K2 dealers and make controlled purchases.
The operation was launched after medics responded to about 50 K2-related calls over the Thanksgiving weekend, Officer said.
The timing of South by Southwest also played a part in making arrests Monday, since police downtown will be focused on crowd control once the festival begins Friday, Officer said.