Bloomingdale is one of the most historic neighborhoods in the District. The streets are lined with distinctive Victorian row houses, many built around the turn of the 20th century. If you take some time to walk along them, you’ll notice some of the things you can find anywhere else in D.C.
First, you’ll see young professionals in the process of transforming many of those row houses into rental condominiums mingling with the older, working-class residents.
Second, you’ll notice the occasional whiff of marijuana.
The possession of small amounts of marijuana for personal use has been legal in the District since 2015 but selling it remains illegal.
So how do you legally get high in the District if you don’t have any friends willing to share a bit of bud?
For some, the answer is a product that exists in a similar, legal gray area: synthetic marijuana.
Synthetic marijuana, often called “spice” or “K2,” takes many forms. Most often, it’s a mixture of chemicals designed to simulate the psychoactive effects of pot sprayed over a blend of herbs or other combustible material.
But K2 isn’t exactly lab-made pot. The exact formula changes from brand to brand. While one batch might closely mirror the effect of smoking marijuana, others might cause symptoms like high blood pressure or respiratory problems.
And while pot probably won’t kill you (at least not in a normal dose), K2 can.
K2 has been linked to a number of overdose deaths across the country over the past several years.
This summer, the District saw hundreds of drug overdoses related to a bad batch of synthetic marijuana, according to WTOP.
According to Travis Hughes, a specialist at the D.C. Department of Behavioral Health, the government is making efforts to fight the issue of K2 overdoses, including community outreach. But it will take some pressure from the public faced with the reality of K2 abuse to really make a difference.
In the meantime, like the rest of the district, Bloomingdale has seen its share of K2 overdoses, according to resident Ted McGinn.
I met McGinn at the farmers market he runs in Bloomingdale for over a decade. A bear of a man with a long, white goatee and a psychedelic bandana tied around his forehead, McGinn sat at a table near the entrance greeting visitors next to his son, Ted Jr.
Like his father, Ted Jr. is broad with a long, stringy beard, though his is still a fiery red. He helps with the market.
McGinn invited me to sit down in another vacant chair and answered my questions while handing out tokens for the market’s program to match government food aid to visitors purchasing organic fruits and vegetables.
He pointed across the street to Florida Avenue Park as an example of how the neighborhood has changed since he, a self-described “OG gentrifier,” moved in 30 years ago.
In those days, Florida Avenue Park was an open-air drug market where dealers supplied crack and heroin, he said. Today, it stands across the street from a playground shared by students from local charter schools.
McGinn didn’t seem particularly bothered about the K2 issue, especially when he compared it to the days when crack was king in Bloomingdale.
“There’s been a definite uptick. But compared to 20 years ago… this is a far cry from the drug war days,” McGinn said. “The body count was everything.”
But even today, McGinn said, you can hear ambulances rolling up a few times a day to a nearby stretch of road to haul away people overdosing, including from K2.
To McGinn, this new string of overdoses in the neighborhood is a remnant of the way the neighborhood used to be, when “30 percent of the homes in this area were vacant,” set against the gentrified future of Bloomingdale.
Local resident Robin Shuster agrees that drug use has gone down since she’s been living along U Street. Even the drugs have changed, she said.
Today, she said, you can always tell when someone nearby is smoking marijuana because it leaves a potent smell on their clothes.
“It didn’t when I was younger,” she said with a playful faux gravitas.
In the 80s, she said, there were drug dealers and kids serving as their lookouts on the corners. Today, the biggest issue, besides the overdoses, is that drug use has led to a surge in car break-ins, she said.
According to Metro PD stats, reported car break-ins in Bloomingdale are up from 320 last year to 469 this year.
Shuster said the thefts remind her of the height of the crack epidemic in D.C., when “they would break into a car for a pencil, anything that they could get hold of to sell. And we’re seeing these enormous break-ins again. And I think it’s related,” she said.
The real cause of the overdoses is the fact that selling recreational marijuana remains illegal, according to McGinn.
Were it legalized, he thinks, only a small subset of drug users seeking a stronger high would still gravitate to K2.
The legal issues surrounding K2 make it hard to tackle the issue through legislation. The formulas change frequently, meaning that a law passed to outlaw one specific composition of synthetic drugs go into effect, only for a new, slightly different (and thus legal) form to make its way onto the streets.
Even in a place like D.C., where laws surrounding pot are relatively lax, K2 is often more accessible given the fact that it is available in corner stores and tobacco shops.
One such business in Bloomingdale was shut down in 2015 for selling an illegal form of synthetic drugs. But such actions have done little to make it harder to get.
The fact that K2 is often cheaper than marijuana also makes the drug appealing to poor or homeless users.
Homelessness is an issue in Bloomingdale, particularly on some of the streets on the periphery as it blends into Shaw and Eckington, where I found a number of men on street corners bundled up in blankets against the November cold.
Like any drug, finding out a way to effectively fight K2 remains elusive.
But in Bloomingdale, at least, things seem to be getting better than they were in the 80s according to McGinn and Shuster.
When Shuster’s husband first bought a house in the area thirty years ago, Shuster remembers telling pointing out several dealers operating on the street outside. It was something her husband had failed to notice until she pointed it out, she said.
“That was a big surprise to him because he came from Canada, where he didn’t see a lot of drugs. And I don’t see that now. I don’t see people openly dealing drugs in the neighborhood,” she said.