Synthetic marijuana, also known as K2 or spice, soared in popularity in 2013 because of its over-the-counter accessibility and drastically low price compared to other drugs.
After state legislation went into effect in 2015 making all versions of K2 illegal, the Austin Police Department took the chance to crack down on businesses selling the controlled substance, in addition to confronting street dealers who were surprised by APD’s aggressive strategy.
Police officials are continuing to investigate the sources of the August K2 outbreak and said that drug manufacturing is shifting from the international arena to local warehouses.
“I don’t know if I’d attribute it to identifiable gangs as far as Mexican cartels,” APD Lt. Kurt Thomas said. “These are drug-trafficking organizations. The chemicals that are used to spray the benign plant substance in K2, those are typically coming from overseas, like from China, while your manufacturing is occurring in the United States in these big hubs like Houston.”
Tetrahydrocannabinol, more colloquially known as THC, is the chemical substance found in marijuana that causes mind-altering, psychological effects. Liquid THC is created in labs overseas, such as in China, and shipped to the port of Houston where it is taken to a local warehouse and sprayed on the plant substance that makes up K2. The varying chemicals found in THC, depending on how it was made, can lead to unpredictable side-effects.
“The chemicals have been shipped locally, and the benign plant substance is being sprayed in these large warehouses, and then is packaged from there and then distributed out to other cities,” Thomas said. “We’re working current investigations right now where we’ve corroborated information with some suspects we’re looking at.”
Johnson declined to provide details about the source of the August outbreak but said that APD is making ground in their investigation regarding the incident.
Houston and Dallas have witnessed greater problems with K2 drug-trading networks compared to Austin, according to APD narcotics detective Jon Walker. Walker credits this Austin clampdown on K2 to the initial sweeps that were implemented as soon as selling it over-the-counter became illegal. Police would work undercover as K2 consumers by purchasing the drug at gas stations or smoke shops, and would then subsequently arrest the business owners who sold it to them.
“Because of that, you don’t see this open business selling of the K2,” Walker said. “People are scared to sell it in the open in Austin because of that sweep.”
UT research professor Jane Maxwell, who conducts research involving substance abuse and drug trade, said ridding an area of a certain type of drug is nearly impossible.
“There is no sweeping [K2] out of the area,” Maxwell said. “Arrest one dealer, and two more take his place.”