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ST. LOUIS • Dozens of people have been treated downtown over the past several days after apparently overdosing on a synthetic cannabis-like drug, officials said Wednesday.

“People were standing and walking around like zombies,” said St. Louis Fire Chief Dennis Jenkerson. “They didn’t know what they were doing or where they were at.”

Some were found lying in the streets and on sidewalks.

Most of those overdosing appeared to be homeless, Jenkerson said, and most were in the area of New Life Evangelistic Center on Locust Street or the nearby Central Library branch. Jenkerson said 18 were treated in those areas Monday, eight Tuesday and more Wednesday. Many of them were taken to a hospital.

About 11 a.m. Wednesday, Jenkerson said, “the police chief was passing by the north side of the library when he saw seven people down, and by the time the fire department arrived, there were 11 down within a 20-minute period.”

When paramedics arrived on the scene, there were men and women lying on the ground, Jenkerson said. Some were having seizures, moaning and asking for help. On Monday, Jenkerson said, people were taking off their clothes.

A Post-Dispatch photographer saw one man being treated in the 1600 block of Locust Street early Wednesday afternoon, and again by paramedics near New Life a few hours later. The man told the photographer he had been smoking K2, using a common name for synthetic cannabinoids, but he wasn’t able to give his name or other information.

Several others were passed out near the homeless shelter Wednesday evening.

Earlier in the day, city officials packed a conference room in Mayor Francis Slay’s office to address the issue. Those attending included Jenkerson, Police Chief Sam Dotson and representatives from the health department and building division.

Mary Ellen Ponder, Slay’s chief of staff, said that police and other city officials have talked with some of those who overdosed, and believed they had a strong lead on who sold the drugs.

Police later said three people had been taken into custody for questioning. Police said at least two of them had been seen on videotape making suspicious exchanges. A bag or two of tobacco-like substance was found with them that needed to be examined.

An emergency medical technician said the overdoses happened on several blocks in the vicinity of the Rev. Larry Rice’s New Life Evangelistic Center, at 14th and Locust streets. The city is at odds with the shelter, and on Wednesday, ordered it to close. Rice plans an appeal.

Rice said it’s people in the street using the suspicious substance and he talked with his clients about steering clear of it.

“Somebody is preying on the most vulnerable people in society,” Rice said from his office Wednesday evening.

Minutes later, another person went down outside New Life.

“You don’t know what day it is?” a medical technician asked the woman. She was momentarily put in the back of an ambulance and was last seen walking down the sidewalk in a daze, saying she wanted to go home.

People nearby identified the substance in question by various street names: K2, spice and tunechi. One person who said he does youth outreach in the area said it was potpourri.

James Tyler Pennick, 29, who was staying at the shelter, said people on probation and parole are susceptible because they want to avoid testing positive for marijuana use.

“I tried it once,” said Pennick, an Air Force veteran who was recently kicked out of rehab. “I took one hit. It’s supposed to be like marijuana. It was almost like having a seizure. I didn’t know where I was. I didn’t know my own name.

“The drug is everywhere,” he added. “A lot of homeless people have drug problems. I am sure this stuff is very cheap.”

On the street Wednesday night, St. Louis police Lt. James Joyner said the “bad batch” of the substance was being sold for $1 per rolled cigarette.

“It’s a cheap way to get high,” he said. “They stiffen up, throw up and then go to the hospital.”

David Carson and Doug Moore of the Post-Dispatch contributed to this report.

Denise Hollinshed is a reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Jesse Bogan is a reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

David Carson is a photographer at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.