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Police See Decline In K2 Calls Following Ramped Up Efforts To Combat The Street Drug

Martin do Nascimento
Austin Police Department Cmdr. Justin Newsom talks about the dangers of the synthetic drug K2 at the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless on Tuesday.

Police say progress has been made in reducing the prevalence of K2 in recent weeks, following a pledge from city officials to double down on efforts to combat the cheap synthetic street drug.

Capt. Darren Noak, deputy public information officer at Austin Travis County EMS, said EMS received 15 K2-related calls over the past weekend. That’s down from 30 calls received on Saturday alone the first weekend in April.

“We definitely want to put a shoutout to not only the mayor, city council, staff, but the Austin Police Department for their efforts," he said. "It seems, at least right now, to be having a good effect in curtailing those numbers."

K2, which can cause life-threatening reactions, has plagued Austin's homeless population since 2014. At least two people here have died after using the drug.

EMS officials have been tracking calls related to K2 since 2012. Each month, they provide the Austin Police Department with a heat map, showing K2-related calls. The majority of the calls are concentrated in the area around the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless (ARCH).

“When you go to work ... in the downtown station, you come to expect that you’re going to run K2 calls all day,” Noak said.

Credit Martin do Nascimento / KUT
A sign in the entryway for the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless.

The number of monthly calls related to K2 went from the tens to the hundreds in 2014, he said, reaching a high of 406 last June. In March, medics responded to 395 calls, the second highest number of calls on record.

In response, Mayor Steve Adler and the Austin City Council pledged to do whatever it took to combat K2. The Austin Police Department had also begun to ramp up its efforts, Cmdr. Justin Newsom said.

“We actually started here, here in the downtown area command, as soon as South By [Southwest] was over," he said. "I mean, we already knew the spike was happening, but when South By is happening, all we can do is hold on for dear life."

Newsom said he and his team began making arrests on the last day of the festival, after seeing dealers selling K2 outside the ARCH. On April 8, a six-person detail was deployed to patrol the area. Around 40 people were arrested for felony drug possession and/or sales between March 19 and April 13, Newsome said.

Police seized a stash of 2,600 doses of K2 last weekend, thanks to a lead from one of the arrests.

“So yeah, it’s working,” Newsom said. “The increased enforcement has had an effect.”

Noak said he’s seen K2-related calls decline before. In September 2015, a new law went into effect that expanded the provisions of the Texas Controlled Substances Act, effectively making all forms of K2 illegal, as well as increasing the punishment for possession and distribution.

“With that law change, we did see a drop for a while,” he said.

Mayor Adler has also formed a muti-agency task force to fight K2. The task force will include Austin Travis County Integral Care, the Department of Health and Human Services and other social service providers that help the homeless and mentally ill in Austin and Travis County.

Kate Groetzinger is a part-time reporter at KUT. She comes to us from Quartz, a digital media publication based in New York City, where she served as an Atlantic Media fellow. Prior to working at Quartz, Kate graduated from Brown University with a bachelor's degree in English. While at Brown, Kate served as an intern at Texas Monthly. Her work has been published online by Texas Monthly, CultureMap Austin, The Atlantic, Quartz, The Gotham Gazette and Paste Magazine, and in print by Rhode Island Monthly. She is happy to be back in her home state reporting on news for her fellow Texans.
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