There is a word that local residents and workers use to describe a group of drug users whose presence they say has grown around a busy Brooklyn transit hub: zombies. What was once a few familiar faces has turned into a tribe of strangers, walking around, staggering and looking lost, in the throes, it is believed, of the ill effects of K2, a synthetic drug that officials in New York have been working hard to eradicate.
The problem in the neighborhood has gotten to be such that a manager of an urban farm nearby, tired of the smoke wafting onto the property, posted two hand-painted wooden signs with a simple message: “No Smoking K2.”
On Tuesday, the longstanding problem became a local crisis on this gritty patch, on the border of two developing neighborhoods, Bedford-Stuyvesant and Bushwick. In the area around the subway station at Myrtle Avenue and Broadway, emergency workers transported 33 people who were suspected of overdosing on K2 to hospitals, the police said. The powerful drug, also known as Spice or synthetic marijuana, has grown in popularity in recent years despite public warnings.
Eight people were taken from the Stockton Street area to Woodhull Medical Center suffering from “altered mental states,” lethargy and respiratory issues around 9:40 a.m., a spokesman for the Fire Department said. Others were found in the surrounding area.
“It’s like a scene out of a zombie movie, a horrible scene,” said Brian Arthur, 38, who watched three people collapse as he made his way to work in the morning and began live-streaming the episode on Facebook. “This drug truly paralyzed people.” (Watch the video. Contains vulgar language.)
Even hours after the first call came in, a few erratic people could still be seen staggering around the streets under the train tracks. Some fought back against gravity by bracing their arms on parked cars or light poles. A few toppled to the ground. A video that Mr. Arthur streamed on Facebook captured responders helping an unsteady man into an ambulance; nearby, another slumped soporifically against a fire hydrant.
Pairs of police officers walked the blocks around Broadway and Myrtle Avenue, checking the vital signs of men they found unconscious. Anyone who was unresponsive was loaded onto a stretcher and taken away in an ambulance.
K2 has been around for many years, but its pervasiveness and popularity with homeless people caused health officials to warn of a public health crisis last summer. In 2015, New York City had more than 6,000 emergency room visits involving the drug and two deaths, according to the health department.
After months of raids and arrests, and new legislation in the fall that banned synthetic cannabinoids and threatened businesses and owners who sold K2 with closings, hefty fines and jail time, officials announced an 85 percent reduction in K2-related emergency room visits in May.
Social service providers, however, have said that enforcement in some areas has simply caused some sellers and buyers to move to different communities. Regulars of the area around the transit hub say the use of K2 has bloomed into a larger problem in the last two to three months. “You can smell it,” said Jason Reis, 34, the manager of the Bushwick City Farm, who posted signs in front of the urban green space about a week ago. “The way people are acting. They smoke it openly. And you can see them rolling it.”
Mr. Reis described an influx of people roaming the side streets around the subway station, particularly the quiet Stockton Street block where the farm is located, sitting on benches and stoops or in front of stores, rolling and smoking K2 cigarettes, leaving trash and empty K2 packets with their garish exteriors behind, and even urinating and defecating in public.
Mr. Reis said he placed the signs out of concern for the children who frequent the farm to garden and play basketball. “We were just getting a little fed up with it,” he said.
The police said they had recently targeted the area for arrests and seizures of K2. Residents said the drug used to be available at convenience stores in the area, but is no longer visible on shelves.
City Councilman Robert E. Cornegy Jr., who represents part of the area, said that he had heard from constituents about people “bugging out” and making drug sales as they waited for buses or trains. Dealers, he said, use the bustling intersection, which is shaded by the overhead subway tracks, to provide cover for their illicit activity.
“You can assimilate into the hustle and bustle, and that’s part of the problem,” Mr. Cornegy, a Democrat, said. “It’s very difficult to track certain behaviors in an area like that without overpolicing, which nobody wants.”
Nury Rodriguez, 55, a hairstylist at A Cut Above, on Stockton Street, said she had grown accustomed to the group of men congregating on the street in the morning. Usually they loiter and smoke all day. Some “act crazy,” she said. On Tuesday morning, she was surprised to see a few falling to the ground.
“It’s very scary because you never see something like that,” Ms. Rodriguez said. “They look like they’re going to die. They can’t help themselves.”