COLUMBIA, Mo. – Columbia police and medics continued Thursday to respond to overdoses from synthetic marijuana after authorities reported about a dozen cases Wednesday.
Police were called at about 10 a.m. Thursday to Wilkes Boulevard United Methodist Church, which also operates a homeless shelter.
K2 blamed for more than a dozen overdose cases in Columbia
Police said they will be heavily patrolling the area and that they have received numerous reports of people near the church who were "non-responsive, having a seizure, or in cardiac arrest."
In a press conference, Lt. Geoff Jones said, "we are going to find people selling it and arrest them."
Five or more overdose cases happened near the church between 5:30 and 6:30 p.m. Wednesday. Batches of synthetic marijuana, also known as K2, have been cited in mass overdoses similar to the cases in Columbia in several cities. Authorities also reported several overdoses concentrated around extended stay motels.
"Because it's out there in the community, but it's not just the homeless population," Lt. Jones said.
According to the Drug Enforcement Administration misuse or abuse of the drug can cause health effects including anxiety, racing heartbeat and high blood pressure, intense hallucinations and psychotic episodes.
Columbia police and emergency responders continued Thursday to battle a rash of overdoses linked to the drug K2 and seemingly targeting the local homeless community.
During a news conference Thursday, Columbia assistant fire chief Brad Fraizer said he was uncertain of the total number of overdose cases but said it was between 15 and 20. Fraizer was joined at the news conference by Steve Hollis, human services manager for the Columbia-Boone County Department of Public Health and Human Services, Columbia police Lt. Geoff Jones to answer questions on the incidents.
“The fire department has run approximately 12 calls through this morning,” Frazier said. “There was one additional call this afternoon. The number of subjects at each call has ranged between one and four, so we have approximately between 15 and 20 people we have seen over 12 to 13 calls in three days.”
More than a dozen cases were reported Wednesday, many near the Turning Point homeless day shelter at Wilkes Boulevard United Methodist Church. The release warned the public that investigators think the drug is an adulterated version of the synthetic marijuana that may have fentanyl or some other extremely dangerous substance.
The drug is causing a wide range of reactions among users, Fraizer said, from combative behavior to respiratory arrest.
“Our primary concerns are airway, breathing and circulation,” Fraizer said. “We make sure we can maintain their airway. If they are in respiratory arrest, we are going to provide oxygen. We do have Narcan (an opioid-reversal drug). If we suspect it’s a drug overdose of some kind, we will try that as well.”
Jones said police dont know what the specific chemical composition of the suspect drugs are, but they have sent samples to a laboratory for analysis. Authorities are working diligently to trace the source of the drugs and have suspicions, but could not offer details on the ongoing investigation.
“We have our suspicions and are looking into that,” he said. “(K2) has been around and we deal with it regularly, we just haven’t had these types of medical issues.”
At least five overdose cases occurred Wednesday in a one-hour period near Turning Point, located in the 700 block of Wilkes Boulevard. The mission provides meals and other support services for the homeless community. Other overdoses happened around extended stay motels, police stated in the release.
Another two incidents were reported noon Wednesday at or near the ministry. Shortly after noon, another occurred near the intersection of Sixth Street and Wilkes Boulevard, about a block away.
Wilkes Boulevard Pastor Brad Bryan said he believes dealers are specifically targeting the ministry’s clients due their vulnerability.
“The predators know where (homeless persons) are going to be and when,” Bryan said. “They have a vulnerable, captive customer base, so to speak. Anything with homeless services, the predators follow. They know from eight to noon, if Turning Point is operating they will probably find a couple customers. They know that every night when Loaves and Fishes (a dinner service) is operating, they can probably move some.”
While often referred to as synthetic marijuana, K2 is not in any way similar to or related to the cannabis plant, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. The drug is actually manufactured from a hodgepodge of chemicals or other drugs, which are sprayed on plant matter to produce an intense high.
It is also cheap, about $20-50 for three grams of the drug, according to various online drug reporting sites. That amount of the substance could be enough for several highs, depending on potency or chemical composition, making it attractive for cash-strapped users.
“K2 is ridiculously cheap,” Bryan said. “They throw whatever they can find that’s affordable to them to buy en masse and put it into this poison. It’s really a predator and prey situation. Our people come here for services because they need a hot meal and become fish in a barrel for the predators in this town.”
Health department outreach teams report that K2 is used frequently by homeless Columbians, Hollis said.
“That is to some degree because of low cost, availability,” he said. “We are involved to a large extent because people experiencing homelessness were represented disproportionately in the population being responded to.”
Bryan is currently trying to spread the word that what police believe is a possibly laced version of the drug is on the street and causing overdoses, as are police, which have also stepped up enforcement efforts around the ministry Thursday in response.
Health department outreach teams and Turning Point volunteers were taking to the streets Thursday in areas where the homeless frequent to spread awareness and try to gather information on where the drugs might be coming from.
So far no one has died from using the drug. University Hospital reports that so far they have treated 11 K2 overdose cases while Boone Hospital reports it has seen one. In at least one apparent case on Thursday the victim declined medical transport.
Boone County Sheriff’s spokesman Detective Tom O’Sullivan said no incidents had been reported in the county.
It’s not clear what the suspect K2 in Columbia is laced with at this time. Earlier this year, a batch of K2 in the St. Louis area, which may have been laced with Fentanyl, caused a large number of overdoses in a concentrated area in just a few hours. In the Washington D.C. area, K2 was laced with rat poison. K2 laced with other dangerous substances caused severe illness and at least three deaths earlier this year in Illinois.
“We dont know,” Sapp said. “We cant get anyone to talk to us yet about where they got the K2, etc. Often just one hit and the individual passes out, some experience seizures, some respiratory distress.”
“We do not know the source or makeup of the K2,” the department stated on its Twitter account. “Users must beware. Dangerous stuff.”
One police officer on the scene of an incident Thursday commented, “Another K2 incident, two more down.”