At Lexington Avenue and 125th Street West, the corner about which Lou Reed sang of scoring heroin in 1960s New York, dealers today croon about a new cheap high: K2.

Stay there long enough and you'll hear them, says Fabe, a panhandler in East Harlem who says he once bought a K2 joint from a pedlar for $3.

"They come by and they'll be like, 'Yo, you got that K2? You got K2?'" he says, imitating the pitchmen he encounters almost daily selling joints and $10 baggies of the "synthetic marijuana."

Yomar Dortalin and Fabe talk about K2

Yomar Dortalatin, 37, in the red checkered shirt, and Fabe, 46, a homeless man in East Harlem, with his back to the camera, say they have tried K2, but decided it was not for them after 'bugging out' on it. (Matt Kwong/CBC)

It's a familiar drug to Canadians in parts of northern Alberta as well. Oil workers have reportedly lit up the herbal narcotic for years in order to mimic the mind-altering effects of weed, without having to worry about failing urine tests designed to detect cannabis.

The chemical-herbal mixes are designed to reproduce the effects of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC).

"I was addicted from that very first toke," Carmen Caldwell, a K2 addict and former oil-patch supervisor, told CBC Radio's The Current in October, speaking from Edmonton. "I could get high and still piss clean."

Unlike marijuana, K2 can cause seizures, vomiting, violent mood swings and organ damage. Due to manufacturers' ever-changing chemical recipes, its Canadian legal status remains hazy. The lethal drug, which resembles potpourri, involves psychoactive chemicals produced in China and sprayed on dried plant material.

As Canada braces for a shift toward legalizing marijuana after a change in government to the Liberal Party, New York City is toughening laws against synthetics and releasing PSA ads targeting youths who may be attracted to the product's flavours and colourful packaging.

K2 continues to be marketed as "legal weed" or "smokeable herbal incense" in shops. It goes by other names on the street — Spice, Zinger, Crazy Clown, Yucatan Fire, Skunk, Moon Rocks.

wdr-620-synthetic-marijuana

K2 is labelled with many other names, including Spice, Zinger, Crazy Clown, Yucatan Fire, Skunk and Moon Rocks. In 2013, police alleged this artificial pot product called IZMS was sold in Hamilton, Ont., and landed a man in hospital. (CBC)

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio calls it "poison." In October the city agreed to outlaw its sale and production, a move Canadian law enforcement may be watching closely as they try to crack down on the drug's use in Alberta.

Following alarming rates of overdoses, which U.S. attorney Preet Bharara declared a "public health crisis," de Blasio signed three bills to criminalize the sale of synthetic pot.

Selling or producing K2 was previously only considered a health code violation in New York state, punishable with a $250 fine. Under the new laws, offenders can be sentenced to a year in jail and fined up to $50,000. Shops could also be shut down.

Canada is monitoring the spread of synthetic cannabis use, according to the Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse, but "clusters of harm" have arisen in Alberta.

Two St. Albert teens were hospitalized in 2013 after overdosing on synthetics. In 2011, Calgary police raided seven stores selling the chemical-herbal mixes.

The problem has not been as intense as it is in the U.S., says Matthew Young, a senior researcher and policy analyst with the Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse in Ottawa.

But regulation is tricky because the chemical makeup changes frequently.

"There are over 130 of these compounds and there are new ones appearing at a fairly rapid rate," Young said. "When people say it's 'legal,' people automatically assume it's gone through some kind of quality control. But some of these compounds aren't covered by existing legislation because how do you control something that is yet to exist?"

New York's legislation is not intended to punish users, but the merchants who are selling to addicts and turning homeless people into zombies.

"You know who's smoking because they're bugging out," said Yomar Dortalatin, who sleeps on the streets. "They take a pull. They bug out. They fall down."

Fabe and K2

Fabe, 46, a homeless man in East Harlem, says he once took two or three pulls from a K2 joint, but discarded it. (Matt Kwong/CBC)

Following de Blasio's announcement, the colourful $10 foil packages quickly disappeared from the shelves of bodegas and convenience stores in East Harlem.

"I've seen it cut down dramatically within the last month or so. My friend died two days ago smoking that shit. He took a few pulls, fell asleep and died," said Dave Waller, who was soliciting for spare change near the track for the 4-5-6 train.

"You see guys hallucinating, kicking cars while high on that shit. I saw a guy walking up, his head up, just spitting, and it would come down, hit his face, and he'd keep spitting."

The potent, deadly synthetic cannabinoid sent 2,300 people to emergency rooms in New York state in August and September alone.

'It will mess up your life'

Young said Canada does not have reliable records on synthetics overdoses, but Health Canada issued a warning in August 2013 advising people not to purchase the products, which the agency acknowledged are "available for sale at some convenience stores, specialty tobacco stores and head shops."

The Centers for Disease Control logged 3,572 calls across the U.S. related to synthetics in the first five months of this year, up 229 per cent from the same period last year. In April there was a spike of 15 deaths.

Overdoses are especially high in New York state and New Jersey, where 22-year-old recovering K2 addict Zack Ellis lives.

"Each batch is different. Different chemicals, different products, different labels," he said from a rooming house in Dover, N.J. "Different flavours, too. I get mine as mango."

Ellis began smoking K2 around 2011, after he left the Jamesburg juvenile jail and wanted alternatives to weed so he could pass mandated urine tests. He quickly became addicted, and decided to seek treatment when he woke up in a hospital in July.

"I had took like three or four pulls, started getting dizzy and passed out on the concrete; cracked my nose," he said. "I realized if I keep doing this, I'm going to end up dead."

Ellis, who suffers from PTSD and bipolar disorder, now has a mental-health counsellor and has cut his K2 consumption to about two joints a week, down from as many as 11 a day.

He confesses that although K2 is sometimes all he thinks about all day, "I'm glad to see they're banning it."

"It will mess up your life. It messed up mine," he said. "I just hope I can stop."

Corrections

  • This story originally referred to K2 as a "potent, deadly cannabinoid." In fact, K2 is a synthetic cannabinoid.
    Nov 09, 2015 7:39 AM ET