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Downtown drug crisis pushes Adler, Council to pledge increased support

Friday, April 7, 2017 by Chad Swiatecki

Austin’s police and public health departments will have extra budget and other resources available soon to help them focus on ending an increase in the use of the synthetic drug K2 downtown.

At a press conference Thursday, Mayor Steve Adler was joined by several City Council members and assorted city department heads who have already seen the impact of the street drugs sold for $5 a dose to the poor and homeless community centered around the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless.

The drug, which is often a cocktail of varying chemicals and compounds, typically leaves its users in a catatonic or zombielike state or can cause episodes of extreme violence and mania. News reports in recent weeks have chronicled dozens of cases per day of area emergency medical teams treating K2 users at ARCH, with many of those people requiring treatment at area hospitals for seizures, unconsciousness or other side effects.

Adler called the situation “our most immediate and largest crisis” and said he and Council will pass an emergency resolution to give police, emergency medical and public health departments the resources they need to curb the use of the drug among the homeless community.

“I have a message for our city manager, our police and our EMS, and that is – you tell us what you need, and we will get it for you,” Adler said. “The mayor pro tem and I and colleagues on the Council plan to offer an emergency resolution that will very specifically support the ongoing effort of the manager and our public safety folks and first responders as well as (support) new efforts, including a public education campaign.“

Last month, the proximity of ARCH to Austin’s two well-known entertainment districts downtown created an environment in which K2 users who were suffering side effects that left them in an unresponsive, statuelike state were intermixed on city streets with confused onlookers from all over the world in town for South by Southwest. The increase in drug use around ARCH is one of a number of issues creating concern for owners of music venues and nightclubs in the Red River Cultural District.

Jason Dusterhoft, assistant chief of the Austin Police Department, said the department’s focus is on arresting and penalizing dealers of the drug, which is typically sold in cigarette form, but that it takes months to chemically analyze materials seized during an arrest and then file charges. That lag time means sellers have to be released and can continue dealing or take measures to avoid capture.

“We’re not going for (the) user, we’re targeting the dealer,” he said. “You have to find a person with K2, and from there it takes three to six months to analyze (the) drug.”

Dusterhoft said the department has issued 104 warrants for K2 dealers in recent years, with 70 arrests. He said the department is working with ARCH to have officers on-site at all times to monitor for K2 deals.

“This is a crisis, and we’re taking this seriously and putting a tremendous amount of resources into it,” he said before later clarifying that there has been one documented death from K2 use in Austin, which happened in 2015.

Public health officials on hand said there has been a gradual increase in K2 use throughout Austin over the past five years, with its heaviest use concentrated around ARCH because the crowds of homeless people gathered outside represent an easy market to sell to. Adler said that dynamic shows why the city and outside organizations need to take steps to help the homeless community get back on their feet.

“These are Austinites, and we will be judged on how we help them,” he said. “This is another example of why we need to deal with homelessness holistically in our community. They need our help, and they need our protection.”

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