K2 arrest leads to trial, discussion


A Travis County jury sentenced a man to five years in prison last week in the county’s first drug-trafficking trial involving K2, a type of synthetic marijuana. 

Tajay Stephens, 26, was convicted with the minimum sentence for possession of a controlled substance with intent to distribute. Prosecutors said Stephens was the ringleader in a larger operation at a homeless shelter in Austin and revealed video footage of Stephens making multiple transactions.

“I think it’s a fair verdict given the evidence,” prosecutor Bill Bishop told the Austin American-Statesman last week.

The conviction has reopened a larger discussion of K2 distribution in Austin. 

K2 is a blend of industrial chemicals most commonly sprayed onto tobacco leaves and smoked. The drug is similar to marijuana in that it bonds to the same receptors in the brain, but unlike the name suggests, that is about all K2 and marijuana have in common, said Darren Noak, Travis County EMS Captain.

Because of the wide variety of chemicals in each batch of the drug, there is no definite way to predict how K2 will affect users, Noak said.

“It’s a wide and varied presentation — some people are very manic and combative, breathing fast and having a high heart rate, things like that,” Noak said. “After another batch comes into town, maybe now it’s affecting everyone by making them mellow and catatonic. It can be totally two extremes.”

As of September 2015, K2 is illegal in Texas. In recent years, K2 has become a major problem in the Austin area. Last year, Travis County EMS responded to 1,611 K2-related calls. Although this number is 26.9 percent lower than in 2015, when EMS responded to 2,204 calls, it is a 1,050.7 percent increase from 2012, in which EMS only responded to 140 calls all year. The downtown Austin area consistently has the highest reports of K2-related EMS responses, according to the reports. This is due not only to the high homeless and transient population in these areas, but also because of how inexpensive and available the drug is, Austin Police Department Lt. Oliver Tate said.

Last year, APD issued 62 arrest warrants for K2 dealers, according to the Statesman. However, these warrants are hard to obtain, since K2 cannot be tested for in hospitals and must be sent to private labs to be analyzed, Tate said. 

“We don’t really know what the chemical makeup is, (so) each batch may be different,” Tate said. “The manufacturers really don’t care, it’s just about making money. With a drug like cocaine, you can easily get an indicator kit and test for it, but with K2, they use so many different chemicals … (blood) samples have to go to a chemist.”

According to APD, the majority of K2 in Austin is transported from the Houston area. Tate said APD is continuing to monitor the areas where K2 is most common.

“We continuously are working operations in the downtown area to mend flow of it coming into city as well as it being sold into the city, both at the organized crime level as well as patrolling,” Tate said. “We’re doing lots of observation so we can go out and respond to it when it occurs.”