Prison “K2”: The Hidden Center of a Chaotic New Drug War

November 28, 2022

Back when I was running with biker gangs, we used to play a game called Crash or Fly. Someone would come to the clubhouse with a Chivas Regal bag, you’d reach in blind, and whatever you pulled you had to eat. Might be a micro dot of acid, might be a baby aspirin, might be speed or horse tranquilizer. And you crashed or flew, depending on luck.

Synthetic cannabinoid receptor agonists (SCRA) came into the Georgia Department of Corrections (GDC) drug supply in 2015, according to the sellers. The strips of SCRA-doused paper are advertised as “K2,” or just “strips,” which is all buyers know about what’s on them anyway.

There were scares in those early days. Sometimes people passed out cold, and you weren’t sure whether they were still breathing. Sometimes they sprinted around in a manic fugue state they later would not remember. Sometimes they had seizures, which at least were something most of us knew how to deal with: Roll them onto their side to prevent choking and wait it out. Epilepsy medication is often out of stock here.

Alerting medical meant alerting security, which meant drawing heat into the living units, so the victim was often abandoned to fate. Upon return, they’d be “put out” of the unit—combined eviction and public shaming. The decision can be appealed via wrestling match or fist fight, or they leave branded a “catch-out”—unwilling to fight, often as the result of cumulative incidents.

Asked what exactly is on these K2 strips he’s selling, Paul* shrugs. “All I know is, it’ll get you high.”

In many prisons including this one, strips sold as K2 are the only affordable or accessible option that is indeed likely to get you high. Paul’s customers are catch-outs, and those in the living units for mental illness. They come to him bearing half a dozen ramen soups earned by selling their meals or clothes, their state-issued uniform unwashed for months because there’s nothing else to change into.

“It will get you high,” Paul assures them.

The harm reduction movement overlooks SCRA because the people using them tend to be the least visible.

For people living in the free world, the United States drug supply is defined by opioids and an overdose crisis. For people trapped in the criminal legal system, the supply is different.

Many correctional facilities don’t really have fentanyl. The main opioid is often contraband Suboxone, and so dying of respiratory depression isn’t the biggest concern. Here, “overdose” usually means something more like “overamp,” because it usually refers to what we presume is SCRA toxicity.

The same chemical properties that make SCRA inexpensive and unpredictable make them wonderfully unconducive to urinalysis. So they’re used to navigate probation or parole, or the methadone clinic system (often as a substitute for crack). Some people like them; most would rather be using the drug they actually like but have lost access to.

SCRA are becoming a multi-billion dollar market, with an unprecedented range of harmful effects: hallucinations, seizures, cardiac arrhythmia, respiratory depression, coma and, in rare instances, death. But the harm reduction movement overlooks SCRA for all the same reasons it often overlooks stimulants—except more so, because the people using them tend to be the least visible.

“What’s really difficult is that there are no human studies being done on these,” Alex Krotulski, associate director at the Center for Forensic Science Research & Education, told Filter.

“What we know comes from [emergency department reports] and what medical examiners have found during autopsies, and trying to pair that information together. It’s all just data we’re collecting retroactively.”

“Chemists in China are throwing everything at the wall and just seeing what sticks. That’s where the market is right now.”

Like fentanyl and its analogs, synthetic cannabinoids are cheaper than the plant-based drug they’re modeled after because they’re much more potent. First-generation SCRA entering the market in the late 2000s were designed to mimic the effects of THC, by interacting with the body’s endocannabinoid system in the same way. And for a while they did.

States began banning SCRA piecemeal. In 2012, President Obama signed the Synthetic Drug Abuse Prevention Act, which placed 15 SCRA (along with 11 synthetic cathinones) under Schedule I. The Iron Law of Prohibition dutifully kicked in, and soon each new SCRA was likely to be more potent than the last.

In July 2021, China became the first country to issue a class-wide ban on SCRA. The global market did a 180. New compounds are now being churned out at a much faster pace—but few of them are potent. Many aren’t psychoactive at all.

“Chemists in China are throwing everything at the wall and just seeing what sticks. That’s where the market is right now,” Krotulski said. “We can tell synthetic cannabinoids are becoming more structurally complex … but we’re kind of just waiting to see what’s the next thing.” 

While THC is a partial agonist, many SCRA are full agonists. THC has a long list of medical benefits and a very short list of harms; SCRA have essentially the opposite. With full agonists of the CB1 receptor in particular, harms present more quickly and chaotically, according to Krotulski. 

“If I OD, so what? What does that even mean really?”

Sales of K2 strips in here peaked when the pandemic hit and all the guards quit. For over a year there’d be three COs for the entire prison at night, maybe six during the day. We went weeks without even being counted. I am still amazed no one just walked out. 

We no longer have random shakedowns or locker checks. GDC sends in tactical squads on occasion. The Canine Unit dogs are the foot soldiers in the warden’s war on drugs, even if there aren’t enough handlers for regular walkthroughs. Maybe GDC has a dog trained to sniff out SCRA, but it wasn’t the one outside the barbershop yesterday. GDC did not respond to Filter’s request for comment.

SCRA is thus a desirable supply for sellers like Paul. Buyers who line up won’t be holding anything long enough to be concerned anyway. If they can scrape together $5, they can get something about the size of a postage stamp. Divide into four, sell three for $2 each, return to the seller for another stamp.

“If I OD, so what? What does that even mean really?” Derek*, on the green side of 25 and on his fifth or sixth lockup, told Filter. “So what if I get caught? There’s no room in the hole. I don’t get visits or [commissary] or packages. There is not a privilege of mine that can be taken from me.”

Most of Paul’s other customers share this mentality. Probably won’t die, nothing to live for anyway. Probably won’t get caught, nothing to lose anyway.

Derek can’t afford a phone. He can’t access the one good TV. His JPay tablet is, of course, useless. The library cutoff is two books per week. His case-plan classes are either canceled or cut short on the days they’re held. No homework or projects, just a certificate of completion for signing in. He was on the waitlist to pursue his GED, but got bumped for taking leftovers from the kitchen. 

“There is nothing—Not. A. Thing.—to do around here. It’s prison. It sucks. It’s boring,” he said. “What the fuck am I supposed to do in here?”

Manufacturers try to skirt regulations by labeling SCRA “Not for human consumption.” Prison meat products often say the same, but that doesn’t mean we have anything else to eat.

“The K2, Spice, it’s not like weed at all. It’s intense. Or you never know what it’s gonna do,” Floyd* told Filter. “Sometimes it amps you up; throw you into a panic attack if you already have anxiety. You’d smoke a blunt to take you away from all that.” 

Floyd has been on parole in Georgia for three years after being in prison for 32, which is to say there’s no telling how much longer he’ll have to pee in cups on command.

“The drug tests are always random. They’ll call you in the middle of work. Just how it is.”

Urinalysis testing for one drug at a time is expensive and inefficient, so labs use class-wide mixers that test for opioids or benzodiazepines or so forth, then narrow it down from there. Most drugs have the same chemical building blocks as others in their class regardless of individual potency, which is why they cause the same types of effects. Heroin and fentanyl, for instance, both cause respiratory depression; the latter escalates much more quickly.

Modern SCRA are being churned out so chaotically that the term is a catch-all for drugs that not only have nothing to do with organic cannabis, but have nothing to do with each other besides binding to the same receptors in your body. So they defy the mixer approach, on top of their chemical nature not being particularly compatible with urinalysis in the first place. Your parole officer can bump your test from a 5-panel to a 10- or a 15- or whatever the local LabCorp offers, and they still won’t be testing for SCRA.

“They don’t even make synthetic cannabinoid mixers anymore because they change so rapidly,” University of North Carolina chemist Erin Tracy told Filter. “It’s not in the financial interest of the chemical company, because by the time they made them and people bought them they’d be off the market.”

SCRA manufacturers will try to skirt regulations by labeling their products “Not for human consumption.” The meat products served in correctional facilities often carry the same label, but that doesn’t mean we have anything else to eat.

Floyd hates the chemical-doused potpourri SCRA is sold as in the free world. “I’m old school,” he said. “I love the old school stuff. Naturally grown out of the woods in cow shit. Not this.” 

The last time he saw his PO, he told him he was going to “fail” the urinalysis, apologizing as he explained the excruciating back pain caused by his degenerative disk disease. Instead, his PO told him to go sign up for the new Low THC Oil Registry, which is Georgia’s idea of a medical marijuana program.

“He did tell me, ‘It’s over if you come in dirty for methamphetamine.’ But the marijuana it’s sort of, get this card so you can do what you do.”

His PO might have been throwing him a bone, knowing the lab wouldn’t look at concentration levels. He might not have known some labs can do that.

Strips from one living unit in my prison contained ADB-BUTINACA, a potent C1 full agonist.

Gas Chromatography-Mass Spectrometry (GCMS) analysis obtained by Filter found that Paul’s K2 strips—this batch, at least—didn’t contain any SCRA. They contained something, but whatever it was didn’t get any hits in the mass spectral reference libraries. Despite the churn of previously unidentified SCRA, the compounds on the strips were distinct enough to rule out first contact with a new one. 

From a forensic perspective, the strips contained no substances of interest. This isn’t to say no one became high; many of the drugs that characterize our supply, like the active ingredients in Raid or Lysol, aren’t considered relevant enough to warrant adding to the forensic libraries.

Four days later, other strips sourced from one of the more miserable living units in my prison turned out to contain ADB-BUTINACA, a potent C1 full agonist and one of the most prevalent SCRA in the country. Crash or fly.

“Synthetic cannabinoids are a whole beast of their own. The market is unlike any other drug market that we monitor. It’s changing so quickly, there’s so many different players, it’s not straightforward,” Krotulski said. “Depending on how much toxicology testing has been done, sometimes conclusions can be made that are not based on the drug itself.”

When Tracy began working at a forensic crime lab in 2012, the SCRA samples that law enforcement sent her were mostly plant materials they’d seized from gas stations. By the time she left in 2021, the supply had been replaced entirely with strips seized from correctional facilities. And even overdose cases required special permission to be able to send physical samples for analysis; otherwise the cause of death would just be based off the toxicology report.

The people who use SCRA are the most impacted by the drug war, and the least likely to be represented in the data.

Cannabis legalization and regulation does correlate to fewer reports of SCRA toxicity. But there’s a ceiling here. I’ve never known someone using “K2” who didn’t wish for real weed instead, but it’s not the prohibition of cannabis, exactly, that’s in their way. It’s prison. Or parole, or poverty, or something else that would keep legalized cannabis off-limits for them. One way or another, the people who use SCRA are the people least likely to make it into the data, even though they’ve been the most impacted by the drug war.

SCRA research uses data from emergency departments and DUI reports, neither of which include prisoners. There’s no guarantee we’re even represented in the post-mortem toxicology data, depending on the jurisdiction where the coroner’s office is doing the testing.

Prison drug supply has been analyzed with GCMS many times, but never previously in collaboration with prisoners instead of law enforcement, which by my count brings the total non-contraband-seizure samples up to two. 

You want to understand a drug, start by asking the people who use it.



* Names have been changed to protect sources.

Photograph courtesy of Kastalia Medrano

R Street Institute supported the production of this article through a restricted grant to The Influence Foundation, which operates FilterFilter‘s Editorial Independence Policy applies.

Jimmy Iakovos

Jimmy Iakovos is a pseudonym for a writer who is incarcerated in Georgia. It is illegal in some Southern states to earn a living while under a sentence of penal servitude. Writing has enabled Jimmy to endure over 30 years of continuous imprisonment.

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