Addiction to K2 or "spice" is commonplace in U.S. prisons.
Photo courtesy of DEA

It’s often assumed that you can’t obtain drugs in prison. 

That’s an understandable misconception, given the restrictions inherent to the institution. But it turns out that acquiring drugs in prison is actually quite achievable, and addiction is commonplace

According to The National Institute on Drug Abuse, 65% of people in prison have an active substance use disorder. Many of them arrived there with it, and, tragically, drug use trends inside prison mirror the trends outside. The U.S. recorded 107,622 drug overdose deaths last year — an all-time high. Meanwhile, overdose deaths in state prisons continue to climb — up by more than 600% over the last two decades, according to the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Two particular drugs have risen to dominance in prisons: synthetic marijuana and suboxone. Synthetic marijuana, often referred to as “K2” or “spice,” is made of chemicals called cannabinoids because they are similar to the chemicals in marijuana and often produce similar effects. The lab-produced chemicals are sprayed onto plant material but otherwise bear no resemblance to cannabis, which is why experts have warned that the term “synthetic marijuana” is misleading. The high from K2 or spice is generally more unpredictable and much more dangerous

Suboxone, an opioid, can be prescribed to treat pain, and is used to wean people off an opioid addiction. 

K2 and suboxone are popular in prison because of their potency, undetectability and availability. Both drugs are strong, even in smaller doses. Drug testing for synthetic marijuana is difficult because the chemicals in synthetic marijauna are frequently changing.

Due to the amount of drugs in prison, nearly every incarcerated person has a friend struggling with addiction. Though it’s not a substitute for quality medical care and treatment, friends can help people suffering with the illness in a variety of ways. 

It’s important to follow the basic tenet of the Hippocratic oath: “Do no harm.” This means no enabling behavior such as secret-keeping, excuse-making or covering up for friends. Openness and honesty are essential to overcoming addiction. 

Friends can work with the person who is addicted to minimize access to substances, and use the relationship as a platform for accountability. People with substance use disorders need someone who is supportive, truthful and not judgmental. It’s important to remind friends of the pain and consequence of their illness as a means of motivation and not of shame. 

Friends can also be a bridge to healthy relationships, which are essential in recovery. People with addictions need to build new networks of friends and should rely on existing friends to help curate them. 

Prison is a community. The amount of addiction in prison means that addiction is our collective problem, and one that requires collective solutions — neighbors helping neighbors. An effective response does not entirely rely on administration, staff or corrections officers, although we could use their help when it comes to stemming the flow of smuggled drugs into prison

We incarcerated people must take responsibility for our community challenges and help each other out. 

(Additional reporting by PJP)

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

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Timothy Johnson

Timothy Johnson is the assistant editor for Nash News in Nash Correctional Institution, the first prison publication in North Carolina. He holds a bachelor’s degree in pastoral ministry with a minor in counseling from Southeast Baptist Theological Seminary. He also works as a graduate assistant and is the editor of the “Ambassadors in Exile” journal for The College at Southeastern’s North Carolina Field Minister Program (NCFMP), which provides theological training to long-term incarcerated people.