This post is part of a collaborative narrative series composed of my writing and Chris Arnade's photos exploring issues of addiction, poverty and prostitution in Hunts Point, Bronx. For more on the series, look here.


In Hunts Point, Bronx, K2 sidles alongside adolescent sex workers and those in their early 20s, those who rely on pimps for protection. I wrote about one of the young women, 22-year-old Beauty, who consistently uses K2, a lab-bred marijuana likeness affixed in bodegas. It's an easy-access drug. Really, an easy-access form of control. Pimps provide the wannabe pot to relax and create dependence in their girls.

Beauty, Hunts Point, Bronx. Photo courtesy of Chris Arnade.

Before touching on K2, here's a reminder of what it's supposed to mimic and how marijuana works, a bit from one of my earlier posts:

Of marijuana's over 400 chemicals, several are psychoactive; that is, they cross the blood-brain barrier to affect brain function and handicap the central nervous system. It’s predominately THC (delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol) present in the plant’s flowers, in the resin, that’s most active and determines what kind of high the user will receive. If there’s little of this magical compound, the unfortunate user gets a “headache high.” More THC results in a clear high, but in overmature plants, where THC has converted to cannabinol (CBN), users feel more sedated, heavy and “stoned.”

When smoking marijuana, our lungs quickly absorb THC and carry it through the bloodstream to our brain, resulting in a high within minutes. Cannabis is a bit curious because unlike most drugs that fall firmly into either the hallucinogen, stimulant or depressant category, it falls in all three. Once in the brain, THC interacts with cannabinoid receptors in different parts of the brain, mainly impacting regions controlling sensory perception, motor control, pleasure and memory which results in a distinct high. It furthermore toys with the brain’s noradrenalin and GABA receptors to lessen anxiety.

Instead of the real deal, synthetic cannabinoids, THC mimics, compose K2. Since the early 2000s, designer druggists have sold an artificially-tweaked formula to legally evade the law enforcement system. Once regulators outlaw a strain, manufacturers alter their K2 formula slightly to remain loopholed in the market. Because of this, and because of the weighty number of rogue creators, we'll hardly ever know what's in the stuff behind the counters. Of course, a barrage of side effects comes with a constant churn of formulas.

K2's original chemist, John W. Huffman, talks about the compound with LiveScience:

"You can get very high on it. It's about 10 times more active than THC," the active ingredient in marijuana.

From a chemist's perspective, that means K2 has an affinity for the cannabinoid brain receptor (CB1) that's about 10 times greater than THC. For the less chemically inclined, it means you can smoke a lot less K2 to get just as high.

The compound works on the brain in the same way as marijuana's active ingredient THC, or tetrahydrocannabinol. Both compounds bind to the CB1 receptors, which primarily affect the central nervous system.

An easier high for less drug.

On my first visit to Hunts Point over six months ago, I came away with my very own K2 and rolling papers. It cost me less than $10 and 30 seconds of my time. The stuff looks like marijuana but smells acidically saccharine, at least, that's the scent I've distinguished from the brown rolled joints Beauty smokes. The kind I bought is aptly named "Dead Man."

Along with being cheap and strong, a large part of K2's draw is its legality. Women can smoke while sashaying on the streets for clients, avoiding police interference with their drugs if not their business. And so, pimps buy strong, cheap, legal highs for their girls, who will stay close at hand for a 'special treat,' more of it. It also sidesteps the troubles that come for pimps with harder drugs: having a dope-sick or crack-fixed charge who, perhaps, may be too sick or high to work the streets and provide profit.

For pimps, K2 is a simple means of bestowing approval and protecting their young investments from running off. For young sex workers, it's a reward, a workday crutch and a lifestyle escape. All that behind a plastic partition in a corner store.

I've never held stock in the idea of a gateway drug, a corollary myth better equated to a scare tactic, the bad science of correlation presumed to be causation. But here, when young girls are supplied a relaxed high to get through the grueling sexual tasks and the dangers riding in strangers' backseats, they come to crave the feeling. And when they break free of pimps to act on their own, usually in their early-to-mid 20s, a K2 coping mechanism bleeds into something further in a neighborhood and profession where crack and heroin reign. Heroin and crack, pimp-prohibited things that they are, become a sneer at authority, a haphazardly illustrious emblem of freedom.