Houston firefighters on the front line of drug epidemic: Kush calls draining resources

HOUSTON (KTRK) -- Ever since 17 people overdosed on Kush, the synthetic form of marijuana popular on the streets of Houston, stepped up police patrols have pushed addicts out of the areas they had been gathering in Hermann Park.

Still, the Kush crisis has only gotten worse.

Now, users are passing out in large numbers near the city's Metro stations and under freeways. It is the same place where Houston Fire Station No. 7 has been spending a lot of time.

"Look over here, under the bridge -- see them just slumped over?" Houston Fire Captain Van Postell pointed out to the Eyewitness News crew.

"He admitted to smoking Kush earlier today, but he is oriented, he knows where he is and who he is," the captain said as he stood next to the unidentified man unable to stand up or speak his name.

Despite Mayor Sylvester Turner's Kush crackdown, calls to emergency services are increasing for unresponsive, suspected Kush overdoses.

Less than a minute later, fire station number seven gets another call. At the scene of the emergency, the ground is covered in Kush wrappers.

"You can't just be asleep like this on a sidewalk, man," one firefighter said as he tried to nudge the man into consciousness. "People are calling 911."

The firefighters responding day in and day out to these Kush-related calls say they cycle through the same patients, sometimes getting a call for the same person several times in one day.

"They'll got out, panhandle for $5 or $6, then they'll go down to the corner store, buy five cigarettes for three bucks, five Kush cigarettes and then they'll come and smoke them," said Captain Postell. "When they lose their high, they'll go panhandle for some more money -- that's all they do, every day."

Before Mayor Turner's June Kush crackdown, the Houston Fire Department says it responded to an average of five Kush calls a day. Now, HFD says things seem to only have gotten worse. Between August and September, firefighters have responded to an average of seven calls for Kush overdoses each day.

"It's tough on us to see real emergencies, fires going down, that we're not able to do our job," said firefighter Philip Hynninen.

Each call takes firefighters and emergency personnel at least 10 minutes, tying up several units for just that one call.

"You can have 15, 16 personnel and four to five apparatus, including fire apparatus tied up for this one overdose," Hynninen said.

On the day Eyewitness News rode along with Fire Station 7, firefighters responded to six Kush calls in just three hours.

Balancing the response between the drug epidemic and calls for everything but Kush, Captain Postell says he's worried about the drain on resources and the potential impact on the safety of the public.

"We're here to make calls and help people but it doesn't seem like we're helping many people," said Postell.
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