Kush gets Sypho higher than he’s ever been. He says he practically floats. But he has to be careful — if he doesn’t eat, kush ties his stomach into knots and makes him vomit. Sometimes he blacks out and hallucinates, or feels things crawling on him. He has keeled over on the spot after smoking kush, smacking his head on the unforgiving concrete. He’s woken up in the middle of the street after being hit by a car, and found himself in Bellaire or Acres Homes without the slightest idea how he got there. One time, when he was being transported to Ben Taub Hospital after a bad reaction to kush, he was so uncontrollably violent that he “went berserk” and tried to fight everyone in the ambulance. They had to tie him down and sedate him. “It feels like you’re dying,” Sypho says. “But it’s the best high I’ve ever had. When you wake up, it’s back to normal. You just want more.”
But the scope of Houston’s kush problem extends far beyond the homeless who gather at Wheeler Station — kush abusers come from all walks of life, from the suburbs to small towns. Massive overdose outbreaks caused by bad batches of kush have hospitalized dozens of people at a time, not only in Houston but across the country. On June 23, 17, people in Hermann Park were hospitalized after overdosing on kush. Less than two weeks later, 33 people overdosed on kush on a single block in Brooklyn. Days after the Brooklyn episode, 20 people in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, were treated for kush overdoses in a two-day span. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, calls to poison control centers regarding kush jumped 221 percent from 2014 to 2015 alone. The nationwide epidemic is showing no signs of slowing down, and the situation in Houston is no different. Law enforcement is struggling to keep up.
Sypho says he smokes kush every day. It’s cheap and pretty easy to get. A few loose singles will get you a kush-filled cigarillo on the street, and a single bag goes for $10 at the most. Fifty dollars can get you enough kush for a week. It’s available online, too, from sketchy wholesalers peddling “Code Black Pineapple” for less than four dollars per gram, 15 grams of “Black Mamba Incense” for $21.99, or a whole ounce of “Legal Bud-Demon Herbal Smoke” for just $45.95. The packaging makes kush look like candy, with colorful, cartoonish illustrations on the cover and names like Scooby Snax, Space Cadet, Gorilla, Climax, White Tiger and Avalanche. Inside is a ground-up leafy substance, often tea leaves or potpourri, sprayed with an intoxicating blend of chemicals. Though it’s branded as “herbal incense,” it reeks of a strong and unpleasant odor, stale and dank and somewhat sweet. There’s fine print on the back of the package warning buyers that kush is not for human consumption.
But according to the Drug Enforcement Administration, that’s just a clever ploy to get past federal regulators. The listed ingredients are often vague and misleading. No one really knows what’s in each package of kush until it’s tested in a lab, which has made it extremely dangerous to use yet just as difficult to criminalize. Recent state legislation and concentrated efforts by multiple law enforcement agencies have focused on cracking down on the dangerous drug, but producers still seem one step ahead, altering the chemical compound of kush every six months or so in order to make it a similarly potent, but uncontrolled, substance. By the time law enforcement identifies the new compound and adds it to the list of illegal drugs, producers are already releasing the next altered batch.
Despite the increasing illegality of kush, some gas stations and smoke shops still openly sell it, so long as you know where to go and how to ask. You can also get it easily on the street, where it’s sold out of backpacks and pants pockets and distributed in little plastic baggies or pre-rolled cigarillos. Dozens of dealers are posted all day and night near Wheeler Station, where Metro rail riders from all over Houston hop off to buy kush. The exchange of dollar bills for bags happens in plain sight, and empty kush packages litter the pavement. The most destitute kush smokers scan the crevices for discarded roaches and spilled buds.
As dusk descends on Wheeler Station, about 30 people sit along a concrete barrier below the overpass nearby. Dozens are holding cigarillos filled with kush, the ashy orange tips glowing amid clouds of wispy gray smoke. After a few drags, their bloodshot eyes roll back into their heads. They tip and lean like a schooner in rough seas. Some are already passed out. One man is curled up on the concrete barrier, deep into a kush-induced slumber. He rolls over and falls a few feet to the concrete with a hard thud. He slowly picks himself up, then walks around asking people for a cigarillo of kush, desperate for another hit. His speech is slurred, his movements labored. The others brush him off.
Few are willing or lucid enough to talk, but the ones who are have a lot to say about kush. Sypho, for example, says he could “write a book about it.” Sixty-five-year old Connie Masterson, sitting under the overpass with her son, Joe, 25, says she and Joe have been smoking kush for years. Connie is happy to talk about kush, but Joe doesn’t talk much — his eyes wander and he looks tired. Connie says they started smoking kush back when they lived in Jasper County, when her older son was working at a refinery and needed to pass a drug test, so they switched to the synthetic drug. After they moved to Houston, it was much easier to get the drug. They smoked a lot. She remembers a time when she traded her entire purse for just one blunt. She said Joe smokes about a bag per day, stuff named Gorilla, Monkey, Joker and Dead Man Walking, which smells “just like a dead man.” She says she’s seen Joe “stroke out” right before her eyes. “It was prophesized that Joe will be a preacher, but we’ll see if he doesn’t kill himself first,” Masterson says, with Joe sitting right next to her. “That shit’ll kill you. But the buzz just has a hold on you.”
Both current and rehabilitating kush users say the craving they feel for kush is stronger than with more traditional, highly addictive drugs. “It’s worse than heroin, cocaine, crack and meth,” says Victor Odom, 40, while hanging out at a vacant parking lot near Wheeler Station. “No matter what drug you’ve been on, kush takes that craving away. The only thing that makes them stop is kush. Crack is the devil, but then who does that make this fellow kush? You hear that word a million times a day here. Kush, kush, kush, kush, kush. It’s bad shit.”
Not everyone agrees that kush is bad. Some users will say it has hardly any impact on them beyond a calming effect. But it left Emily Bauer, a teenage girl in suburban Cypress, partially paralyzed and fighting for her life. It can be deadly; Harris County reports six kush-related deaths since 2015, but that number could be a lot higher. It’s not like heroin, where you pretty much just OD and die. People on kush wander into traffic or have seizures or strokes that may not be easily traced back to the drug.
Late at night under the overpass, a man walks unsteadily toward the street. He steps in front of a departing bus and narrowly avoids being run over before finding his way back to safety below the overpass. Sypho points at him and says he’s been smoking kush. The man’s arms jerk and his body bends and bows. He is no longer in control of his limbs. His legs give way, he crashes to the pavement, he retches loudly, tears off his shirt, and he folds to the ground, where he lies on his back, half-naked and unconscious, for about a half-hour.
“This is Kush City right here,” Sypho says.
When the researchers published their findings, they unwittingly provided a blueprint for nefarious drug producers. By 2008, kush had made it to the United States, “re-created by rogue chemists to be used as an alternative to marijuana,” according to a DEA report. Most of the kush compounds are made in China, then shipped to the United States, where distributors in garages or warehouses spray the chemicals on plant leaves, then package the drug as herbal incense. Batches are often sprayed carelessly and unevenly, which explains why people have drastically different reactions to kush. This is also likely responsible for massive outbreaks, like the one in Hermann Park.
Houston quickly became a major hub for kush, and by 2010, the city’s forensic lab started seeing frequent cases. DEA investigators seized more than one million packets of kush in Houston between 2011 and 2013, and in 2014 the agency identified Houston as a “key market” for the drug. But federal, state and local laws were slow to adjust to the skyrocketing problem. The substance was mostly legal in Texas until September of last year, when the legislature passed a law that banned 1,000 different compounds of kush. Along with the Harris County Attorney’s Office, the state Attorney General’s Office has recently been using Texas’s Deceptive Trade Practices Act to shut down smoke shops and gas stations selling kush, alleging the packages are deceptively labeled with ingredients like “passion flower,” “wild lettuce” and “lemon balm,” without acknowledging the controlled substances that may be part of the chemical compound.
Undercover police officers or sheriff’s deputies will catch stores selling kush, and then they’ll raid the shops and confiscate the drugs, clearing the way for the state to file court orders and levy thousands of dollars in fines against the store owners to keep them from selling kush on the shelves. It’s an inventive use of consumer protection laws and a circuitous route to criminalizing kush.
In May, the DEA and the Houston Police Department announced a major kush bust, of “one of the largest synthetic cannabinoid trafficking enterprises in the country,” according to the press release. Sixteen people were arrested, including an assistant professor at the University of Houston-Victoria (he faces charges related to money laundering; the others were charged with distributing and possessing kush). According to the indictment, the packages were labeled as “potpourri” and “incense,” and purported to be “100 percent legal” and “lab certified.” “Synthetic cannabinoids have been a major issue in our city and this was a major step in getting this illegal substance off our streets,” HPD interim chief Martha Montalvo said in the release.
After police make an arrest related to kush, the substance suspected to be the synthetic drug goes to the Forensic Science Center at HPD’s headquarters downtown. There, controlled substances manager James Miller and his team face the challenging task of identifying kush. He says all kush substances have similar components, but they’re broken down into three parts. “Think of it like Legos,” Miller explains. “You have three piles of Legos. You take one Lego from each pile, combine it together and you’ll call that a synthetic cannabinoid. It’s very easy to mix and match those parts and make new substances. There are literally hundreds of different possible combinations.
“The two we’re seeing right now are FUB-AMB and 5-Fluoro ADB,” Miller says. “We see it in cycles. For about six months, you’ll see the same chemicals. Then you’ll start to see those go away and something else come in. [Producers] are intentionally changing it to divert the laws that are being passed. We spend a lot of our time identifying these drugs. That’s the constant challenge. When they start changing the formulation, we’ll know it’s different, but we can’t identify it yet. We share and compare our data with other labs, and then we have to obtain a control, so we know what it is. There are limited suppliers for these controls.”
Miller says he has to go through this lengthy process each time a new kush substance shows up in his lab. “It makes it interesting from a chemist’s perspective, but the other side is, people are waiting for results and we can’t provide them,” Miller says. “And from the user side, they’re running the risk of ingesting chemicals we haven’t seen before. If your goal in life was to be a lab rat and determine the effects of unknown chemical compounds, then by all means, continue to smoke kush.”
At no point was Houston’s kush problem more public than during the overdose outbreak in Hermann Park in June. News crews descended on the part of the park dubbed “Kush Corner,” and public outcry prompted the city to announce an “aggressive plan” to “take back our parks,” focused on spots downtown and in public parks across the city where kush users and homeless people congregate. Mayor Sylvester Turner shifted 175 officers from desk jobs to the patrol beat, added 13 park rangers for good measure, and created a new division tasked with clearing kush users from the “central business district,” concentrating on Hermann Park; Peggy’s Point, at the corner of Main and Richmond (near Wheeler Station); the Central Library; and Main Street Square. “Several parks, the downtown library, METRO rail stations and other areas are being taken over by drug users,” Turner said in a press release. “They are scaring away families and taxing our emergency medical services with their calls for help when they overdose. We can’t have people smoking Kush and passing out just feet from where our children are playing.”
In July, after the Hermann Park incident, the Houston Fire Department’s Station 8, downtown, responded to more kush-related calls than in any other month this year: 582 total, or about 19 kush calls each day, according to paramedics at the station. Half of the city paramedics’ 3,000 ambulance runs for drug overdoses since last September are attributed to kush. The calls are often concentrated in the same hot spots in downtown and Midtown. Paramedics commonly treat the same person for kush overdoses multiple times per day — the single-day record, according to HFD paramedics, is held by a man whom they treated for kush three times. Kush makes for unpredictable situations. Sometimes the victim’s heart rate is through the roof; other times it’s extremely low. Sometimes the victims are combative, while other times they are completely passed out. They can be covered in vomit or having seizures. Sometimes they get up and walk away before HFD even arrives.
In one sense, the crackdown seems to be working. Hermann Park and downtown landmarks such as the Central Library have visibly fewer kush smokers. However, many in the majority-homeless crowd at Wheeler Station say that the increased police presence downtown has only swept those kush smokers into Midtown. And while Mayor Turner said in an August 11 press conference about kush that the city is focusing law enforcement efforts on distributors rather than users, it’s still somewhat puzzling to see the city framing this drug epidemic as a quality-of-life crime rather than a public health crisis, especially because not all of Houston’s kush users are out smoking on the streets.
It houses people like James Deavours, 24, who first started smoking kush in 2009, when he was on probation in Alabama. He and a friend got ahold of stuff called “Bluegrass” from a dealer on the University of Alabama campus. Kush was brand-new at the time, and according to Deavours, it was also much less potent that it is now. In 2011, Deavours signed up to join the Navy Seals, but quit during Hell Week. Marooned in San Diego, he found something called “Scooby Snax,” which was sold in gas stations and smoke shops in plastic bags, and “Mojo,” which came in plastic containers. Five dollars bought him three grams.
Deavours moved to Pensacola, Florida, and enrolled in parachute rigger training school at the Navy training center. A taxi driver told him where he could get kush. He stopped smoking when he graduated, and was assigned to a Navy base in Jacksonville. After arriving at the base one night drunk, he was sent to the Navy’s Substance Abuse Rehabilitation Program, where, ironically, he met a guy who was smoking kush. This time, Deavours got hooked.
His girlfriend, then pregnant with his first-born son, kept taking money out of her own account to pay for Deavours’s kush addiction. He’d spend $100 on 15 grams each week, buying packages called Kush, Geeked Up, Breeze and Rosé, “with an accent over the ‘e’,” as Deavours remembers. He’d pull into a shop called Smoker’s Video in Jacksonville, and the parking lot was always layered with vomit. Sometimes he couldn’t get through half a blunt at home without passing out. When he’d wake up ten minutes later, shaking, he’d get naked and crawl into the bathtub on his hands and knees and run hot water over his wrists because they were numb. He’d scream at his girlfriend to look for a roach, any tiny bit of blunt that might have fallen somewhere on the floor, just so he could relax again. Their relationship soon ended, and his girlfriend gave their son up for adoption. But Deavours kept smoking kush.
One weekend he got high on kush and took his boss’s 2014 Duramax 3500 truck to look for more. He woke up and found himself in a ditch. Then he woke up again and found himself in a parking lot, lodged in the side of a Nissan Murano. He woke up again, this time crashed into a pole, the front of the truck destroyed. That’s where police caught up to him. They found him in the front seat, sitting in a pool of his own vomit.
In September 2015, after he’d spent 84 days in jail, Deavours’s case was dismissed, and he moved back home to Alabama to live with his mom. He ordered some stuff called “Hulk” online from New York. He went up to the bathroom to smoke, and woke up once again in his own vomit, cradled in his mother’s arms. She had to kick the door down because he was having a seizure. That was the last time Deavours smoked kush. When he arrived at the Open Door Mission rehab facility in June to kick alcohol and cocaine addictions, he realized he could still find kush in smoke shops here. “It was a huge temptation for me,” Deavours said in an interview. “I’m powerless to that.”
William Simon, 25, grew up in a small town in East Texas. He played football (middle linebacker) and basketball (point guard) and ran cross country and track. He had always smoked weed, but when his younger sister went on probation and had to stop smoking marijuana because of drug tests, they started using kush instead. “It took over my life, in every fashion and form,” Simon says. “I didn’t care about anything else, including myself.”
No one moved kush in his hometown, so on payday, he’d cash his check and head straight to smoke shops or gas stations in Beaumont and Baytown, where he’d drop $200 on ten packages, each with 11 grams. Space, Space Cadet, Space Cadet Flight Risk 100x, Monster Kush, Head Trip. It’d be gone in a week. When the police started cracking down on smoke shops, he bought it on the street. Wooh and Gumbo, the street dealers called it. It just came in a plastic sandwich bag. He’d go to a convenience store and buy a cigar, roll it up with kush and start smoking during the drive back, his 2001 Mitsubishi Mirage crawling and swerving down the road. “I smoked more than anyone I ever met,” Simon says. “I didn’t stop smoking until the pack was gone. It was like clockwork: I’d smoke, fall asleep, wake up, smoke, fall asleep, wake up, smoke, fall asleep. I got walking pneumonia from smoking so many blunts.”
He’d smoke before work and during work, sneaking out to a port-a-john to hit a roach he kept in his pocket. The smell from kush was so strong that he’d stuff a towel under his bedroom door at home because his mom couldn’t stand the odor. Simon did other drugs, too, including meth, but he said his addiction to kush was the strongest of them all. “It very well could’ve taken my life,” Simon says. “I think it’s probably the most dangerous drug out there on the streets.”
Rickanthony Bailey, 28, was raised in Third Ward and went to Yates High School. He started smoking kush in 2011, but says the stuff that’s being sold now is much stronger than the drug used to be. “One hit, and you’re done,” Bailey says. “I was smoking crack at the time, but kush made me want to stop smoking crack. Just one or two hits, and it was stronger than anything else.” One time, he was sitting in a truck parked outside his house with friends, smoking kush. It was the first time he’d ever smoked kush with a pipe. He hit it one time and put it down. “Next thing you know, it was like I was in an alternate universe or something,” Bailey says.
He didn’t recognize anything. Whose house was that? Bailey didn’t know. Who were the people he was with? Bailey didn’t know. Where was he? Bailey didn’t know. He blacked out, and when he woke up, his friend was handing him a toothbrush. She told him he had just had a seizure, and stuff was coming out of his mouth. In July 2015, Bailey smoked kush before heading to fix a flat tire with a friend. After a few hits in the car, he could no longer move. He found himself strapped down in a bed at Ben Taub Hospital. His paperwork said he had suffered a chemically induced seizure. “I could’ve been dead,” Bailey says. “I had no control over anything.”
Robert Overman, 34, started smoking kush five or six years ago, back when he was living on the street. A friend first introduced it to him, called it “Fake Bake” and told Overman it would get him high just as marijuana did. But Overman says it was a stronger high, and the consequences were much deeper. He’d black out and lose his memory. He’d walk around like a zombie, scanning the sidewalk for little pieces of roaches. It took his mind off heroin. Coming down from kush was similar to coming off heroin, too. Overman says he’d get sick and develop sweats and chills. He didn’t want to function without having it. The one thing that made him stop was when he saw a video on YouTube featuring a young girl from Houston who’d smoked kush and ended up in the hospital. “It was like she was brain-dead, almost a potato,” Overman said. “It was scary. That could’ve been me.”
Bauer smoked day and night. She set the alarm on her phone for 4:20 p.m. and 4:20 a.m., careful never to miss the symbolic smoking zeniths. The side effects were brutal. She vomited every day (her parents thought that was from acid reflux), and she had debilitating migraines. She was constantly missing school because of anxiety and panic attacks.
On a Friday night in December 2012, Bauer’s mother, Tonya, got a call from Bauer’s boyfriend. He said they’d been smoking “legal weed,” and that Bauer was now acting strange. She wouldn’t wake up. Tonya thought it was just her migraines, so she told Bauer’s boyfriend to let her sleep it off, and sent her older son to go check on her. A few minutes later, her son called. He said Bauer was acting “psychotic.” Tonya called 911, and when she arrived home, Bauer was asleep. When the paramedics and police arrived, Bauer lashed out, punching and running into walls, throwing things and shouting indecipherable sounds, “noises that you wouldn’t think a person could make,” Tonya says in an interview later. “It was like a scene out of a horror movie.”
It took five constables and two paramedics to hold down Bauer — a 16-year-old girl — and sedate her. They strapped her into the ambulance and transported her to the hospital. Doctors were stumped. Heart attack. Meningitis. Nothing fit. Drug tests came up empty, except for barbiturates, which Tonya suspects were from Bauer’s migraine medication. As the night wore on, Bauer showed no signs of improvement. She bit the side of the bed and an emergency room nurse. Her arms flailed wildly, and no dosage of medicine could keep her calm. Her heart rate, blood pressure and body temperature were sky high. All Tonya could do was sit there and cry.
The doctors induced a coma to keep Bauer from hurting herself. They told Tonya that they just needed to give Bauer some time to flush whatever was making her act that way out of her system. Then, they’d ship her off to rehab. MRIs and CAT scans shed little light on what was wreaking havoc on Bauer. Then, an angiogram showed a devastating development: She had extreme vasculitis, and her brain wasn’t getting enough blood. The back of Bauer’s brain was covered in black blotches. The doctors said she must have had at least five strokes. They managed to reverse the vasculitis, but they weren’t confident the damage could be completely undone. They told Tonya the strokes were “not survivable.”
On the eighth day of Bauer’s stay in the hospital, after trying in vain to reduce the swelling and pressure in Bauer’s skull, the doctors told Tonya what every mother fears most: If Bauer, now on life support, ever woke up, she’d never be able to feed herself again, she’d never move her arms or legs, she’d be blind, she’d never be aware that anyone else was in the room with her. Tonya knew Bauer wouldn’t want to live that way, so she pulled life support. On the tenth day, the doctors told Tonya that Bauer would soon be dead, and they waited hours and hours after pulling the plug, doctors checking up on her constantly to see whether life had left her yet.
During one of these routine checkups, a doctor called Bauer’s name.
Her eyelids fluttered.
The next morning, Bauer’s eyes completely opened. Tonya told her that she loved her, and, in a faint whisper, Bauer said it back. “I love you too.” That was the beginning of a long road to recovery, and in its initial stages, the doctors had been mostly right. Bauer couldn’t move at all, except for her mouth and lips. She couldn’t see, couldn’t eat without a feeding tube, couldn’t use the bathroom. She wore adult diapers. Her memory was almost entirely gone, and she thought she was about seven years old.
Years of difficult physical and cognitive therapy sessions went by, and Bauer slowly progressed: thin liquids to solid foods to feeding herself; learning how to write her own name; reading a single word at a time. She can stand, unassisted, for ten seconds now, and she can dress herself about 25 percent of the way. She was able to return to Cy-Fair High School, and with the help of an aide who reads and writes for her, she graduated this year. Her upbeat, sarcastic personality is back to what it once was.
With the help of Tonya and her stepfather, Tommy, Bauer has become the poster child for the harmful effects of kush. In February 2013, they started an awareness campaign, Synthetic Awareness For Emily, or SAFE, to help spread the word about what kush can do at its worst. When Bauer was first at the hospital, Tonya remembers searching online for information about kush, and there was hardly anything out there. Now that’s changed. A steady stream of people have since reached out to Tonya, from all over Houston and as far away as Australia and Europe. They all have similar stories: They sold everything they had for kush, stole from family members for kush, acted like zombies because of kush, had seizures, got sick.
“We’ve had a lot of people tell us that Emily’s story saved their lives,” Tonya says. “I think it really helps a lot of people to see that they’re not alone. Emily is still fighting every week. It’s a horrible example for people who don’t want to end up like that. She’s come a long way, but she’s lost all of her independence.” They also took their story to the state legislature, and helped get the law passed that expanded the list of banned kush compounds. But even with the updated state laws and the city’s efforts to contain kush, the epidemic is hardly winding down.
“See that? That’s kush,” says Curtis, 51, nodding toward the blond woman. Curtis is sitting down on the ground, leaning against a concrete pillar. A swarm of horseflies attacks an empty Jack in the Box container to his left, but Curtis seems unbothered. He has a long, brown cigarillo between his fingers. That, too, is kush. “Space Cadet 100x. That’s what changed the whole game,” Curtis says. “The next-highest potency before that was 10x. As soon as they dropped 100x, nothing else was being sold. People are losing their minds because it’s harder to find now. People go crazy. People get kind of violent when they can’t get it. For me, kush just makes me more relaxed, maybe a little too relaxed, like an opiate.”
As Curtis smokes, a crowd gathers below the overpass about ten yards away. There’s shouting and pushing and shoving, people holding each other back, lots of chest-bumping and in-your-face jawing. A short woman stumbles away from the mob, walking with a limp, one finger on her left hand gushing blood. She says someone knifed her.
“This place is dangerous,” Curtis says as a distraught man staggers by, sweating, shouting, spit flying from his mouth. “They’re on all kinds of drugs; some of them have knives, have guns. Sometimes bullets just start flying. I’ve seen it.”
The commotion seems to be escalating, but Curtis doesn’t budge. He just sits on the dirty ground here in the heart of Houston’s kush capital, puffing away until the roach runs out.