Houston Activists Continue Surveying Synthetic Weed Epidemic Targeting Homeless Community

Synthetic marijuana has been a problem over the years in Houston and nationwide. Through mainstream media, the stories are few and far between where it concerns overdoses and serious affects from use of this dangerous “drug” so much that the City of Houston and media didn’t rake real notice to the problem until there were 16 overdoses a week ago at Hermann Park. However, there has been a group of local activists who’ve already been at work, surveying the epidemic, assisting the homeless, gathering information on treatment programs, confronting store locations that sell synthetic weed, calling for medical help when needed, and much more. This group has far more experience with this crisis than city leaders, treatment centers, and local churches.

For the last couple of months, a group of activists from various local groups banded together to fight against this massive problem. “Kush” is the commonly used name however is labeled incorrectly. Kush is a form of real cannabis marijuana and isn’t harmful to anyone who uses it. The name “kush” was adopted by sellers so that it could appeal to users. Some users make the purchase assuming they are buying real marijuana when in reality, they are buying synthetic weed with absolutely no ties to original and real marijuana.

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WHAT IS FAKE KUSH?

First off, again I want to make it clear that the synthetic weed is not in any form of real marijuana. It is crucial that if an individual is buying marijuana from someone, that they know who they are buying from otherwise they could receive synthetic weed and after 1 – 2 puffs, it can cost a person their life. Synthetic marijuana has various names: K2, Spice, Kush, Climax, and Space Cadet just to name a few. Synthetic weed also has levels of potency. Lower levels of potency start at 6x. It climbs to 10x, 15x, 50x, and 100x. Space Cadet contains the highest potency and most likely is the synthetic marijuana used at the time that 16 individuals overdosed at Houston’s Herman Park on June 23rd. The higher the potency, the more likely one is to have constant seizures, vomit, aggressive behavior, body temperatures rise, irregular heart beat whether it increased or decreases the beats per minute, impaired motor skills, paralysis, coma, and even death. The more frequent chemicals involved in the synthetic marijuana is Raid (roach spray), rubbing alcohol, cat nip, and potpourri incense which is sold in packages similar to what is pictured below. The high itself only lasts 10 – 15 minutes. It only costs $1 to purchase a kush blunt compared to a marijuana blunt which runs $5. Synthetic weed is much cheaper to buy and is easily accessible. We see cases where an individual displays aggressive behavior. In those cases, most likely the kush blunt was laced with meth, which causes their aggression and can put others in danger. Though we are always on guard because of the laced drug, for the most part we generally see individuals on 6x – 10x levels of potency. Most will sleep it off for 20 – 30 minutes then be right back up like nothing happened. Most times the person will not remember what took place while they were high.

ER visits to local hospitals since Sept 2015 drug count:

  1. Kush                            1396
  2. Alcohol                         545
  3. Script Drugs               337
  4. Cocaine/Crack          203
  5. Marijuana                   126
  6. Opiates                        113
  7. Amphetamine           109
  8. Heroin                            95
  9. Ecstasy/MDMA            33
  10. Inhalants                      19
  11. LSD                                  12
  12. GHB                                   7
  13. Ketamine                        5

 

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MASSIVE DRUG BUST AND EMERGENCY PERSONNEL

On May 16, 2016, the DEA and HPD seized 9.5 TONS of synthetic marijuana from a drug ring which included a professor from the University of Houston. The DEA arrested 16 people linked to the drug ring which should have crippled the sale of “kush” for a few weeks at least however that isn’t the case. On May 23, 2016 we saw the use of “kush” jump in record numbers. EMT’s/Houston Fire Dept are called all day, every day to assist with individuals who react to “kush”. This takes away from other emergencies taking place in the community. Not to mention it desensitizes EMT workers who have to see this multiple times a day. For example, the evening of June 26, 2016, an older man was seen staggering on Lamar Street in downtown Houston. He managed to get back on the sidewalk then fell onto his side as he began to have seizures. We contacted 911 to obtain medical assistance in the event that this individual could go into cardiac arrest. EMT’s arrived on the scene where one worker, Erica Czyz, was seen using her radio communicator to literally dig into the ribs of this man, yelling at him to wake up. She did not display gentle use of the object as she continued to push her radio harder, digging further into his ribs, once again demanding that he wake up. One worker was overheard laughing and saying “Y’all should take him to Southeast Memorial hospital so that way we won’t have to deal with this problem for a couple of days.” In other words, move kush users further outside the city so that no one is bothered with another user. That is not the answer.  We continue to request the faithful diligence and professionalism of our EMT workers/fire fighters which we see so often.

We are currently looking into why synthetic marijuana has hit the streets in mass quantity after Houston Police and the DEA obtained 9.5 tons of synthetic weed back on May 16, 2016. Five weeks ago (specifically 5/23/16) the use of “kush” drastically rose. Synthetic marijuana was seized awfully close to the time the quantity of “kush” in massive doses hit the streets, specifically targeting the homeless community in the downtown area 6 months before Houston hosts the Super Bowl. We continue to ask the question: Who is bringing it downtown in such high quantity?

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(For the most part, those who smoke lower levels of potency to kush react in this manner – sitting upright, sleeping off the drug after their 10 – 15 minute high)

HOUSTON POLICE DEALING WITH THE CRISIS

On June 8, 2016 it was a hot Wednesday afternoon. A homeless black male (Mike) who I’ve known for a couple of years appeared with his longtime girlfriend, who I know as well. Both had told me how they spent the majority of their day trying to get on the housing list while also trying to look for a place to stay. Both of them were clearly exhausted from the heat and humidity. If you don’t live in Houston then you don’t know that temps get up to the high 90’s in June with humidity levels over 70% most days. There is no dry heat here. You’re guaranteed to sweat and if you’ve been walking around all day, you’re going to be exhausted the moment you sit down to cool off. That is exactly what happened to this couple after walking around Houston throughout the day. Houston Police Officer Pham, badge# 8193, frequents the library plaza/west end of downtown Houston. He is not liked. Why? Because Officer Pham has a history of being aggressive and has every intention of baiting individuals into an argument so that he can arrest them and take them to jail. Several people have claimed that they saw Pham “kick a homeless woman” as she was laying down one afternoon. Outside of his behavior with the homeless, Pham is combative with homeless advocates. He’ll attempt to argue when he realizes he’s being filmed. Pham has forced us to film him because his professionalism is lacking and he’s known to be aggressive in his personal dealings with the homeless community.

On this particular day, Pham along with two reps from the Sobering Center approached Mike who was leaned up on his girlfriend as he sat on a ledge. He was questioned several times whether he was on “kush” or whether he “intoxicated”. Many times he cited that he was neither kushed out or intoxicated. One of the reps asked him 5 times whether he wanted to be medically evaluated. Each of those times Mike said “no”. At this time it’s clear he’s not high nor is he drunk. Anyone with experience, especially in the drug abuse field, could see that Mike was fine. Not every person who is resting is high or drunk. This is when inquiries turn into harassment. I began filming the incident. How many times does a man have to say “no” to get another to leave him alone? Officer Pham asked for his ID which Mike questioned his reasons. Pham refused to give one, just continued to request his ID. Pham began to ask additional questions while the Sobering Center reps are standing near, watching, not saying anything. Mike was clearly upset, feeling his rights were being violated. By that time I advised Mike to not give any consent to searches nor answer anymore questions without an attorney since it was clear Pham had no intention of backing off Mike. Officer Pham pulled out his handcuffs and detained the man immediately after my suggestion. After Mike was placed in the car, he gave his name which came back clear – no warrants. He was free to go after. The very next day the very same man was done the very same way by Officer Pham, this time without the Sobering Center reps. At what point is this considered “helping the homeless” or attempting to combat the kush crisis? Everything that took place on June 8 screamed violation of civil rights. It is not illegal to lay your head on your girlfriends shoulder. In fact, it is not illegal to rest at all. However, Houston officers are using this as leverage to stop and harass homeless that are not intoxicated in any way.

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(Officer Pham detains a homeless man after wrongly profiling and harassing the man)

On June 10, 2016 Officer Caster, badge# 8746, profiled a black Muslim male who was sitting on a ledge at the downtown library plaza. She too assumed he was intoxicated. The same reps from the Sobering Center came and assessed the man. like the others, he fell victim to untrained officers. The man was cleared by Caster and free to leave. Moments later, Officer Pham appeared and became combative when he saw that we were filming the incident. That same night at 9:08 p.m., Officer Pham accused three homeless men of jaywalking across the street in the downtown area although the men had the signal to “walk” when the light changed. Officer Pham arrested one of the men when he asked why was it that Pham was harassing him all the time. Pham uttered “I’ll show you” then placed the homeless man under arrest claiming he was jaywalking the street.

On June 10, 2016 at 7:12 p.m., not long after Officer Caster and Officer Pham left the plaza, Officer Hill, badge# 4879 appeared profiling two homeless men. He claimed they looked intoxicated when both men were resting on their arm, waiting for the 8 p.m. food sharing to begin. Had he engaged the two men appropriately, talking to them a couple of minutes, he would have learned that neither were intoxicated or high. Officer Hill demanded their ID’s which each complied. Hill returned their ID’s after the men were cleared (no warrants) then went back to his car and began to take photo’s of us who were standing out there witnessing further violation of a individuals civil rights. It is clear that common sense is lacking with these officers. This cannot be reduced to a lack of training. To demand ones ID for merely sitting down is wrong. To constantly do this to the homeless community because officers are allowed to get away with it downright shows these officers as being bullies. Picking on people who cannot defend themselves.

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(Officer Hill profiles two homeless men in downtown Houston)

MAYOR TURNER’S PLAN TO TACKLE THE KUSH EPIDEMIC

June 30, 2016 Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner called a press conference to give a plan of action in effort to handle the kush issues. The press conference was held at the Hermann Park pavilion, right where 16 individuals were taken to the ER from an overdose the week prior. Aside from the Mayor, the interim HPD Chief of Police, Metro Police, Pastor Rudy from St John’s Church, Mr. Kincaid from the Sobering Center were just a few who spoke in front of local media and concerned homeless advocates.

Mayor Turner pushes his plan to combat the use of synthetic marijuana on June 30, 2016
Mayor Turner pushes his plan to combat the use of synthetic marijuana on June 30, 2016

Mayor Turner expressed that there is a problem in Houston with “kush”. However, because Turner and others involved in the press conference are not knowledgeable of the details of this epidemic, their plans to combat the crisis leave lots of room for error. Mayor Turner wanted to make it clear that the City of Houston wanted to partner with other medical facilities in effort to get real treatment to those who are addicted to kush. Unfortunately, there are no immediate treatment facilities or programs for kush users at this time. In fact, state funding doesn’t even recognize kush as a drug which requires treatment. The Mayor announced the deployment of 175 Houston police officers, many being pulled from desk jobs and investigators, being placed on the street to assist with the “kush clean up effort”. I specifically asked the interim Chief of Police whether these officers would be trained. I was never given a direct answer. Seeing the officers were being deployed the following day, it is clear these officers are not going to be trained to deal with anyone using kush, including the homeless who will be profiled due to the stereotype. Bottom line: If an officer comes across an individual who is high on kush, the best he/she can do for that person is take them to the Sobering Center which the person will spend the night to sober up then be released the very next day just to go out and do it again. There is no real help right now. Calling 175 cops to the streets who are untrained is a recipe for disaster. One must take a humane approach no matter how frustrating the situation is. Being compassionate to the persons needs is a requirement. If one lacks people skills and holds little empathy for others, they cannot do this job. We cannot assume all homeless are kush users. While the majority of kush users are located in the downtown area, you can see the map below that pin points other kush hot spots around the city, including the suburbs. Lastly: Who is bringing it downtown? Homeless people aren’t transporting massive amounts of synthetic marijuana to the downtown region.

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(Left: The red signifies kush hot spots. Right: Green dots indicate how many kush users in that area visited an ER facility. You can see in downtown Houston alone, there were 347 cases since Sept. 2015)

There is a lot of work to be done here. None of us have all the answers however we need to be smart about this epidemic. Addressing the needs of mental disorders, depression, PTSD, and much more is crucial at this point. Whether Houston have the capacity to balance mental health still remains unknown. Until we begin to understand that using drugs of any sorts mainly focuses of embedded mental pain that is being masked by drug or alcohol use, we are going to continue to see drug use rise. Of all the homeless individuals I’ve worked with over the last 5 years, 95% of those I’ve spoken with have some sort of mental issue they are dealing with that has been left untreated and prohibits them from moving forward to get housing or use resources offered to help some of the homeless. The majority of homeless I’ve interviewed over the years do not want to be homeless however one should recognize that a form of PTSD takes place when one is thrusted to the streets to survive day to day, minute by minute because the streets are not always safe. The majority of those smoking kush do it to escape the reality which they call “hell”. We truly have no idea what it is like to be on the streets day after day, trying to survive. Many assume help is there but that is not always the case. For example, if you’re a healthy person between the ages of 25 – 64 with no real mental or physical disabilities, or not a parent with children, nor a military veteran, you can be on a housing list for years. In Houston to be placed on a housing list, one must get a homeless letter stating they are homeless and be on the streets for one year before they go on that housing list. Shelters are not the answer either. Shelters in Houston are deplorable. Aside from bed bug infestations and TB, food is extremely inadequate and the volunteers who staff these shelters lack any real compassion or empathy. When a person is forced to a shelter, their dignity is all one has left however too often many of the volunteers strip that from the person as well. I always challenge others to volunteer at the local city shelters to see for themselves just how bad it really is and why it is that so many would rather live on the streets rather than a shelter. This is going to take a lot of us to stay committed if we want to truly resolve the epidemic. If you want to get involved in assisting the homeless in any way, please contact us at homelessadvocateprogramhoutx@gmail.com