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An open package of synthetic marijuana or spice with its contents spilled out
Photo courtesy of the US Marine Corps

In the last few years, two pandemics have devastated the New York State prison system — coronavirus and synthetic marijuana (also known as “K2,” “spice” or “toonchi”). The first has surged and receded several times over, but the epidemic of synthetic marijuana seems to only grow worse with each passing year.

Synthetic marijuana is a group of manmade chemicals that people use as an alternative to real marijuana. It’s nothing like the real stuff, and the effects of using it can be severe. As a resident of Fishkill Correctional Facility since 2021, a medium security prison in Dutchess County, I have observed  how synthetic marijuana overdoses seem to have become increasingly common. 

The uptick started around 2019, when I was still housed at nearby Green Haven Correctional Facility. This was when it started to come in through saturated papers the size of a tic-tac or smaller, instead of its previous form, which resembled potpourri. The drug was now much easier to transport and conceal. The COVID-19 pandemic probably added to the suffering that led people to cope by getting high too.  

It’s normal these days to find people sleeping in bathroom stalls, staggering around dorm rooms babbling to themselves, or shouting at invisible enemies. It’s normal to hear officers muttering “code green” for a medical emergency into their radios and watching nurses apply five-point restraints to black, brown and white bodies before carting them away on gurneys. It’s normal to feel indifferent toward men you’ve known for years, some for many years — a few of whom you once broke bread with, yet no longer recognize — as they slowly, steadily spiral into oblivion, brain damage and death. It shouldn’t be normal, but it is.

The constant exposure to this madness threatens to normalize the worst in us.

I first learned about synthetic marijuana in Green Haven’s weight yard. I think it was 2014, when another incarcerated individual — a physically imposing middle-aged man — took a few pulls off a joint before sliding down a wall and defecating on himself. His body rattled, heaved, then slumped. His buddies slinked away in the dark, their hoodies low as the officers on duty waltzed over and checked his prone body for contraband. Rather than alerting the medical unit as protocol warranted, they lit cigarettes and cracked jokes at his expense.

“Smoking that shit, huh?”

“This guy needs a diaper change.”

“Asshole,” another chimed in, ashing his cigarette on the man’s head. “Didn’t your mama potty train you as a baby?”

There was no response. The yard was silent.

Seemingly satisfied, they radioed in the emergency. It took over 10 minutes for the nurses to arrive. The nurses also seemed to lack any sense of urgency. I wish I could say this was unusual. 

I expected them to administer first aid on the spot. But instead, they grimaced as they roughly hoisted the semiconscious man to his feet. Handcuffed and humiliated, he staggered to the emergency exit. Mouth agape and staring blankly, he screamed something unintelligible. The yard broke into a chorus of snickers and jeers. I watched this all play out from the handball court less than 20 feet away. 

I recall an especially rough day at Green Haven. There were 17 medical emergencies in total. Bodies dropped in the yard, the mess hall, the library, the guidance office and even the infirmary bullpen. Old timers compared the crisis to the drug epidemic of the 1980s. 

In spite of the havoc it has wreaked, synthetic marijuana has enjoyed the reputation of a “recreational substance.” Its chemical structure is undetected by urinalysis tests for natural marijuana, thus making it a “safer” option in terms of penal consequences.

The problem is you never know exactly what is in synthetic marijuana. Some of the consequences include anxiety, hallucinations, violent behavior and psychosis. Long-term side effects are still largely unknown. It’s a chemical form of Russian roulette, a game I refuse to play.

I tried to convince other guys about the dangers. One was a classmate of mine in a college program who was a user at that time. I talked to him at the computer lab at school and gave him a photocopied article from a popular medical journal.

I thought I got through to him. He’d promised to quit, but he instead increased his usage. He overdosed frequently. One time he smoked so much that he had a psychotic episode followed by a heart attack and was rushed to an outside hospital where he nearly died. 

Years passed. I became more disillusioned as I saw and heard too much. Then I moved to my current facility in Fishkill.  

I still couldn’t escape the madness. I could feel my sanity slipping through my hair follicles. I stayed to myself and avoided the zombies as much as possible.

Looking back, I realize that I reacted out of trauma and fear. I thought I needed to cut people off to protect myself. What I’d actually done was mirror the administration’s callousness, hence cutting myself off from my own humanity. 

I had two choices: turn inwardly and strangle my soul, or turn outwardly and suffer with others. I went with the latter. I started befriending users and encouraging them to stay busy through various programs available in prison. I also reminded dealers that they were responsible for bringing on negative consequences like random cell searches and mail monitoring. I hope this will persuade some to seek other avenues of revenue. 

We must raise public awareness of the situation and hold accountable those prison administrators who, rather than seeking practical solutions to this pandemic, uphold outdated, Draconian drug policies at the expense of everyone’s safety. These policies impose such high punishments for a positive drug test for natural marijuana that people turn to synthetic marijuana. 

In my observations, the administration has responded to the synthetic marijuana crisis with various forms of retribution — such as limiting care packages to a small list of approved vendors and by prescreening all incoming mail — rather than focusing on rehabilitation. This, despite New York state’s 2021 cannabis law which legalized marijuana use and approached cannabis as a public health issue rather than a law enforcement problem. 

The message that the corrections department is sending — smoke marijuana and suffer excessive consequences, or smoke synthetic marijuana and avoid those consequences (but take a chance with your life) — is cruel and unusual punishment, given that many incarcerated individuals, sadly, choose the latter option.

The administration should eliminate drug testing and allocate those resources toward rehabilitation and reentry programs. They should also legalize small amounts of marijuana for personal use. This would generate revenue for the state, mellow out the population, and destroy the synthetic marijuana market, creating a safer environment for both prisoners and officers.

If addiction is an illness and not a crime, as Albany purports, then we should treat it as such. The laws behind the wall should reflect those beyond it.

(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.

P.M. Dunne is a PEN America Writing for Justice Fellow. Read his work at or see it performed on