A park in the shadow of Yale’s Old Campus became the scene of a mass overdose on Wednesday as ambulance crews rushed from person to person, desperately treating dozens of semiconscious and disoriented drug users in New Haven.
More than 70 people overdosed in the city during a 24-hour span, beginning Tuesday evening, and the authorities said they suspect a virulent batch of synthetic marijuana, possibly laced with an opioid, was the cause.
The sheer number of overdoses caused a strain on the city, said Dr. Sandy Bogucki, the city’s director of emergency medical services. Emergency medical technicians, Dr. Bogucki said, were “sprinting from patient to patient in the park.” She said crews were transporting people more quickly than usual “just to turn the cars around and get them back out.”
Anthony Campbell, New Haven’s chief of police, said the first overdoses were reported around 8 p.m. on Tuesday at New Haven Green, a downtown park near Yale University. By Wednesday morning, the police said they were notified of several other overdoses from synthetic marijuana, also known as K2, or Spice, not only in the park but in three other locations around the city, including in the Fair Haven and Westville neighborhoods.
Officer David Hartman, a spokesman for the New Haven Police, said a “steady stream” of reported overdoses continued throughout the day. “We hope we don’t find any more,” Officer Hartman said.
New Haven Police arrested two men on Wednesday in connection to the overdoses. Both were in possession of K2, the police said, and were charged with drug possession.
City officials said at least two people had “life-threatening symptoms,” but there were no fatalities. Dana Marnane, a spokeswoman for Yale-New Haven Hospital, said at least 35 people were treated on Wednesday, some of whom have since been released. Five people refused treatment.
As paramedics struggled to deal with the wave of overdoses, transporting dozens to Yale-New Haven and other local hospitals, law enforcement officials scrambled to identify what drug was causing people to collapse and to find the supplier.
Chief Campbell said that agents from the Drug Enforcement Administration had taken a sample of the K2 to a New York laboratory for testing. Uri Shafir, a D.E.A. agent, said they have not yet released the results of the lab tests.
John Alston Jr., the New Haven fire chief, said that the substance ingested by the victims was “some type of marijuana cigarette,” which normally is not treated with Narcan, or naloxone, the overdose-reversing drug. But he said the victims did respond to higher levels of the antidote drug once they got to local hospitals, which led investigators to “deduce that it was laced with something, some opioid compound, possibly fentanyl.”
One overdose patient was brought to the hospital, released after being treated and went back to the Green and overdosed again, Chief Alston said.
Rick Fontana, the New Haven director of emergency operations, said the drug appeared to be a bad batch of K2 laced with an opioid. “Whether it be a synthetic opioid or fentanyl, we are not sure at this time until we have confirmation on the analysis from the D.E.A.,” Fontana said.
Emergency personnel were still present at New Haven Green early Wednesday evening, and planned to remain in the park throughout the night. Just over a month ago, on July 4, another batch of synthetic marijuana caused 14 overdoses, most of them at New Haven Green, the police said. Two years ago, a fentanyl-laced drug was linked to two deaths and 16 overdoses in New Haven.
“It’s not unusual to see a large group of people overdosing, but not at this alarming rate,” Officer Hartman said.
Often sold by corner stores in brightly colored packages under several brand names, K2 is made of a variety of dried plants and lawn clippings sprayed with industrial chemicals. Synthetic cannabinoids have been found in K2 blends, along with other chemicals known to cause severe kidney damage, nausea, elevated heart rates and vomiting.
Mass overdoses on K2 have happened regularly in New York City over the past few years. In May, 56 people were treated for K2 overdoses in the Bushwick neighborhood of Brooklyn, near the intersection of Broadway and Myrtle Street.
During a three-day stretch in July 2016, at least 130 people across New York City were hospitalized after overdosing on K2, with at least 33 people becoming sick in a neighborhood along the border of Bedford-Stuyvesant and Bushwick.
Amy Cheng and Cheryl Platzman Weinstock contributed reporting from New Haven, Conn., and Kristin Hussey contributed reporting from Stamford, Conn.
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