HOUSTON -- Mayor Sylvester Turner announced a plan Thursday to take back the city’s parks a week after more than a dozen people overdosed on synthetic marijuana, or Kush.
The drug, also known as K2 or spice, is a synthetic drug that police say is made of potpourri that is sprayed with more than 100 different types of synthetic chemicals. The drug comes in various potencies and can either turn the user comatose or extremely aggressive.
The city says out of 3,000 ambulance runs by city paramedics for drug overdoses since September 2015, nearly half of them, or 1,396, were related to Kush, far more than the second most common drug, alcohol, at 545 calls.
Thursday afternoon saw another day and another Kush call at the corner of Main and Wheeler near downtown Houston.
“You ever seen an apocalypse, like a zombie?” asked Chastity Harris. “That’s what I look at every day.”
Harris says she, her wife and two daughters have called that corner home for three months, surrounded by people high on Kush.
“I done been robbed, I done been stabbed all up through my leg,” said Harris. “They need to shut it down, man, it’s ridiculous. I’m scared for my life.”
Kush became an illegal substance in 2012. However, police say their hands were tied in enforcing the drug until September 2015, when a new state law closed a loophole that had allowed several ingredients to remain legal.
Turner unveiled a plan to deploy 175 patrol officers from desk jobs to beat patrols into five Kush problem areas near downtown. That includes, Peggy Point Park at Wheeler and Main, Hermann Park, the area surrounding Tranquility Park and the Central Library downtown, McKinney at Main, and Moody Park.
“We can’t have people smoking Kush and passing out just feet from our children while our children our playing,” Turner said during a news conference on Thursday morning at Hermann Park.
Turner is also requesting 13 more park rangers trained by Houston Police and equipped with radios to communicate with police. METRO has also increased enforcement along the rail line, and HPD is using overtime to add roving bike and golf cart patrols in the parks, as well as adding a new patrol division dedicated to the downtown area.
“The teams that we are putting in place must be dynamic enough to move where the problem is,” said Turner.
City officials say in addition to the new efforts, 175 extra officers, including 50 downtown, were already scheduled to hit the streets Friday as part of the city’s new fiscal year.
Several homeless advocates, including Shere Dore, who says she’s been working with the homeless for five years, turned up to the news conference to express concern about how people on the streets and parks would be treated.
“I like the plan, I just don’t think (Turner) is well knowledged on what is really going on out here,” said Dore.
Dore says she is setting up a meeting with Turner next week to share her concerns.
“We don’t want a situation to turn any messier than it could be,” said Dore. “Training the 175 officers is imperative to deal with the homeless or anybody that’s on the Kush.”
Turner says he’s understands the importance of the medical and faith community’s help in addressing the root causes of homelessness.
He also stressed that it’s unfair to lump those who use the drug in with those who are down on their luck and not causing problems.
“It’s not just about trying to lock people up,” said Turner. “It’s not trying to move the homeless out, but to separate the homeless from those who are on the streets, walking the streets, using drugs, using Kush and then intermingling with this population.”
However the help arrives, those living with the reality of homelessness amid the Kush problem just hope the help comes soon.
“There’s babies out here,” said Harris. “They need to go home to their moms and stuff. Downtown is not where you wanna be right now.”
Interim Police Chief Martha Montalvo stressed the department will use its homeless outreach team to divert and provide outreach as much as possible, rather than throw people in jail. She also said in the next week or so she’d be releasing more information about a plan to go after the stores selling Kush.
“Those are the ones that we are very interested in as well because they are creating this problem,” said Montalvo.