Homeless men gathered at Central Union Mission in Washington, D.C., one recent evening to hear a grim message about a new epidemic raging in the streets just outside the shelter.
Media reports linked bizarre behavior and a rash of violence, including homicides, to a surge in the use of synthetic drugs — inexpensive bags of chemicals often marketed to children and vulnerable adults.
The crowd responded with a volley of questions: Where is this stuff coming from, and what’s being done to stop it?
They’re not the only ones demanding a response. While the ever-shifting ingredients in synthetic drugs have left scientists struggling to develop reliable field tests and lawmakers scrambling to ban additional chemical compounds, nonprofits are working to educate people and prevent them from succumbing to addiction. But increased funding from foundations is unlikely, leaders say, because they tend not to support efforts aimed at specific drugs.
In Willimantic, Conn., which saw 12 overdoses in May and at least another six in August, Kristie Scott, chief executive of the local drug treatment center Perception Programs, is feeling the heat.
"There’s an increase in pressure to treatment agencies from the community to say how are you going to solve this?" she says.
Synthetic drugs go by many names: K2, Spice, Bizarro, Scooby Snax, and others. Although they’re sometimes called "synthetic marijuana," their effects — racing heartbeat, seizures, hallucinations, vomiting, psychosis — are different.
Although illegal, the drugs are relatively cheap and easy to acquire over the counter at gas stations and convenience stores, packaged as "potpourri," and so appeal to vulnerable populations, said Rebecca Allen, telephone recovery support manager at Connecticut Community for Addiction Recovery. That includes the homeless, people on probation who mistakenly think synthetic substances can’t be detected by drug tests, and children and teens who may be drawn to the drugs’ colorful packaging or deceptive association with marijuana.
According to the 2014 Monitoring the Future study, which has measured young people’s drug use for decades, 4.8 percent of American eighth, 10th, and 12th graders surveyed reported using synthetic drugs during the previous year.
While that percentage is lower than it was in 2012, some communities are seeing spikes. In Washington, D.C., for example, authorities reported fewer than 30 cases each month from August 2012 until May 2014, when the number jumped to 50. In June 2015, cases spiked to 439. And according to federal agency Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, the availability of the drugs has increased significantly, with more than 17,000 laboratory reports issued in the first half of 2013, up from fewer than 500 in the first half of 2010.
Although nonprofit drug-treatment centers recognize synthetic drugs as a problem, there’s only so much they can do. "We can’t pull people off the streets and say, ‘Oh, you need treatment,’ " says Ms. Scott. Even when patients get into treatment, the psychosis the drugs can induce often renders people unable to participate in behavioral therapy.
Organizations like the Connecticut Community for Addiction Recovery are collaborating with other nonprofit service providers, police officers, schools, and other organizations to spread awareness about the dangers of synthetic drugs.
Foundations Hold Back
Despite calls for action to address synthetic-drug use, foundations tend to prefer comprehensive drug-abuse programs rather than ones that target specific substances, says Alexa Eggleston, senior program officer in charge of youth substance-use prevention at the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation.
She points to the country’s current heroin epidemic to explain why: The crackdown on prescription-drug abuse during the early 2000s is often cited as contributing to the rise in heroin use among people addicted to opiates.
Calvina Fay, executive director of nonprofit Drug Free America Foundation, agrees that a comprehensive approach is best.
"It’s very rare that somebody is a single drug abuser," she says. "When their mind is programmed to want to be altered by a substance, it’s typically not just one drug."
But she’s concerned about a trend she perceives among foundations viewing drug use as a side effect, and not a cause of, mental-health problems, leading them to channel money toward mental health and away from substance-abuse programs. Synthetic drugs have triggered long-lasting psychosis and brain damage in some users.
"Even government agencies have combined substance abuse and mental health," Ms. Fay says. "Mental health has become the drumbeat, not substance abuse."
There are few national grant makers focused on substance-abuse prevention programs, Ms. Eggleston says, a situation she called "a barrier to progress."
"It is unfortunate and we hope that our investments will encourage other funders to consider how they address substance use as part of their broader efforts to reform health-care systems and improve educational outcomes for young people," she said in an email.
Disseminating the facts about synthetic drugs won’t be enough, said Veronica Eckhardt, who last year founded the Connor Project in honor of her son, who died at age 19 after trying Spice. That’s why she and her husband have been speaking about the issue and sharing their personal pain at schools and through media outlets.
"You can tell kids to say no to drugs all day long," she says. But "there’s something about connecting the head and the heart" that she believes is more effective.
The nonprofit has not yet actively sought donations, but the Eckhardts are so overwhelmed with speaking-engagement requests that they want to raise money to create a video to share with audiences they can’t visit in person. They’re also working to create a curriculum schools can use to teach students about synthetic drugs.
"We know that laws need to change, but we know that can take a long time, so we’re trying to educate as many humans as we can," Ms. Eckhardt said. "There are so many places that are being devastated."
At Central Union Mission, the homeless shelter in Washington, the crowd listened respectfully to the factual presentation by a U.S. Justice Department lawyer but paid rapt attention to their peers’ spontaneous personal testimonies. One man talked about how his synthetic-drug use gave him a stroke. Another said that after using the drugs, his buddy hadn’t "got his brain back yet."
By the end of the evening, the men had gotten the message. As one admonished the rest: "We gotta warn our kids."