Synthetic marijuana is a drug that has plagued West Campus for the past two years with at least one case every day being responded to by the Austin and UT Police Departments in 2014 and 2015, according to UTPD assistant chief Peter Scheets.
K2 is a type of synthetic marijuana that gained popularity because of its temporary legality in previous years and low price. This year, UTPD officers say the K2 stronghold has shifted from West Campus to the downtown area, pointing to an August K2 outbreak that led to more than 90 hospitalizations last month.
“We saw the overdoses all the time and everyone was reporting it and we responded to it,” UTPD patrol officer Jorge Cuellar said, referencing his first two years working with members of the West Campus community. “Every time we were out in West Campus we were arresting someone for K2.”
UTPD began a bike patrol program in 2014, which opened the door for UTPD officers to familiarize themselves with local business owners, students and the homeless population in order to crack down on criminal and disorderly behavior near Guadalupe Street.
“It took about a year and a half of just warning, warning, warning,” Cuellar said. “If we saw a criminal act, then we would respond. We knew if this happened for so long that we were just going to drop the hammer and start arresting people.”
Six arrests were made in 2014 and 2015, but Scheets said this number does not reflect how prevalent K2 was during those years. In 2016, he’s seen a significant decrease in the amount of K2 calls.
The concern now has shifted from K2 to the emergence of PCP, which UTPD said it is prepared to tackle.
David Houke, Austin Recovery Center program director, said most K2 cases involve other addiction issues, adding that K2 is sometimes considered a gateway drug.
“It’s not so much that one drug leads to the other, it’s that whole idea of an external fix for how I’m feeling. If they discover one, then they’re more likely to seek out another,” Houke said.
Many members of the homeless community near campus left once the bike patrol made it clear that behaviors such as urinating in public wouldn’t be allowed, said Cuellar.
Afterward, many who were engaged in more serious criminal activity stayed behind, making it simpler to identify K2 dealers.
“[UTPD officers are] gathering information about who is bringing in the drugs, who is selling it, who is distributing it, who is enforcing, because sometimes you can get K2 on credit,” Scheets said. “Then a guy is gonna show up two days later and assault you with a knife or beat you up in the alley.”
Scheets said drug users themselves have even developed relationships with police officers who would patrol the area, leading to more information about how to track down K2 dealers, some of whom were eventually traced back to gangs and larger crime networks.
Two PCP arrests were made this week, and Scheets said UTPD plans to address this potential problem in a similar manner to which they handled K2.
“We’re not gonna stop getting out and making contacts over there,” Scheets said. “Our attitude is we put work in and we got it to this level, we’re gonna keep it there.”