NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) – For two days now, CBS2 has shown you how synthetic marijuana – often called K2 – is ravaging Harlem and other neighborhoods.
On Thursday night, one local family had a personal story on the toll the drug took. They watched CBS2 and were shocked to recognize one of the drug users who appeared sitting on the street in a CBS2 report the day before.
As CBS2’s Tony Aiello reported, CBS2’s Ilana Gold found a group of men smoking K2 at 125th Street and Lexington Avenue on Wednesday.
A viewer recognized one homeless man in a black T-shirt. The man, Peter Vardouniotis Jr., was seen looking clean-cut in a photo celebrating his sister’s wedding two summers ago.
“It breaks my heart. It breaks my heart to see a beautiful boy like that that could have been something in life, and living on the streets,” said the man’s father, Peter Vardouniotis Sr. “I’m a father – and like any father out there, they don’t want to see their kids in the street.”
The elder Vardouniotis said his son attended Dix Hills High School on Long Island and the State University of New York at Albany.
His family said he had every advantage a loving family could ever offer, but all of that was vanquished by the demon of drug use that started 15 years ago.
“He is what he is now because of his addictions,” Vardouniotis Sr. said.
Vardouniotis Sr. was particularly worried about his son using synthetic marijuana, which can permanently damage the body and brain.
“This drug can make these people very violent; very unpredictable,” he said. “The way I saw him today, I don’t know if he’s going to hurt others.”
Vardouniotis Sr. said he has tried many times to get his son help, and even tried to get tough.
“I went to the police station,” he said. “He’s 34 years old. There’s nothing we can do. We cannot hold him more than 72 hours.”
Vardouniotis Sr. said he feels for the families of all the troubled souls who are in the grips of a dangerous drug.
On Thursday morning, NYPD officers were spotted clearing people seemingly passed out on benches in Harlem. Residents told CBS2’s Andrea Grymes there is a huge problem with K2 use in the area.
“This is like, all day, every day, they’re out here, smoking K2, looking like zombies,” one resident told Grymes.
Another resident told Grymes she’d rather walk than take the train to 125th Street and pass the people strung out.
“Two words: Zombie-land,” said Lisa Gonzalez Murphy. “I feel like I’m in a movie and it sucks.”
Just Wednesday, CBS2’s Ilana Gold found men – including Vardouniotis Jr. — openly smoking K2 in the same area. Packets of the drug go for only a few bucks, which is one of the reasons the NYPD says it is popular with the city’s homeless population.
Mayor Bill de Blasio on Thursday rolled out his $22 million “NYC Safe” plan to address the homeless population.
“These individuals, many of them under the influence of this drug, are totally crazy,” Police Commissioner Bill Bratton said Tuesday. “Superhuman strength, impervious to pain. So some of the normal takedowns that we would use are not going to work.”
The police department released video of a naked homeless man blocking a school safety vehicle by crouching in front of it and repeatedly slapping the street to illustrate the problem.
Harlem residents told Grymes K2 use has been a problem for years but has gotten worse there over the last year.
One resident told Grymes he thought authorities were doing enough to combat the problem.
“Oh yeah, the police are here all the time,” Karlmann Gales told Grymes. “But as quick as they run them off, they come back.”
Another resident disagreed.
“No, they’re not. Absolutely not,” said David Dee. “This wouldn’t be happening if they were doing enough.”
The NYPD says it is illegal to sell the drug, but legal to smoke it. Officers have been raiding stores that supply the drug, and the NYPD is promising a continual crackdown. Police say as fast as they’re able to identify the chemicals in K2 and make them illegal, the drug producers change it.
For more information about K2, click here.