AUSTIN (KXAN) — Starting Thursday, there will be more police officers regularly patrolling the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless (ARCH) shelter in downtown Austin in an effort to target dealers who are selling the drug K2 to the homeless population.
Austin Mayor Steve Adler started a joint news conference by saying, “I am not here to tell you to not do drugs. We all know that. But, I am here to tell you to not do this drug: spice.”
For city and county officials, the K2 epidemic is coming to a head and they want to address it with a multi-agency approach.
Asst. Chief Jason Dusterhoft called it a crisis, saying, “This is wreaking havoc on the homeless citizens of Austin.”
Over the past five years, Austin-Travis County EMS has responded to nearly 6,000 K2-related incidents. One person has died from K2. Just last week, dozens of people were taken to the hospital due to K2. The patients who experience K2 overdoses tend to show aggressive behavior and could become comatose.
“We will be judged on how we help them,” Adler said of the city’s vulnerable homeless population. “For those that are orchestrating and profiting off this misery, I don’t know if there’s a special place in hell for them. But there is definitely a place in prison with their name on it.”
Dusterhoft says they are focusing their energy on the dealers who are victimizing the homeless population. In order to do so, the department is putting officers down at the ARCH to make as many as drug arrests as possible. They are also staffing the downtown area at 80 percent during the week and at 100 percent on the weekends in an effort to make visitors to the downtown corridor feel safe, as well as make sure K2 is not being easily sold. Police say the drug sells for as little as $5.
While identifying the problem is easy, identifying the ever-changing K2 drug and charging someone is a painstaking process.
“With K2, it’s much different. When we find the person with K2, we bring them back to a separate area, we search them,” explained Dusterhoft. “If they solely have K2, we are not allowed to arrest them. We can seize the drug and it’ll take 3-6 months to verify the drug.” Since the beginning of the year, 80 people have had K2 confiscated from them to be tested and were released pending lab results. Right now, the turnaround time is 3-6 months. APD is looking into outside labs which could cut wait times down to 4-6 weeks.
Since the onslaught in K2 cases, APD and the Travis County District Attorney’s Office have issued 104 warrants for K2 dealers. The problem is so evasive, however, officers can be arresting people and another person next to them could be making another deal.
At a state level, Austin-Travis County EMS says more can be done. “The Health and Human Services Department in other states have had a more active role,” ATCEMS Commander Mike Benavides said, citing Mississippi and Alabama as examples. “They were tracking these incidents on a state level, not just in a city level.”
Texas Health and Human Services says the only data they on K2 exposures comes from voluntary calls to the Texas Poison Center Network.
“It was very low just statewide—hen we would show we had 300 last month and they only had 14 for the whole state,” said Dusterhoft.
Austin Public Health says it is targeting the homeless to provide fliers and information about substance abuse services. We’re told shelters are also working closely with APD, provide educational outreach on K2.