Pubdate: Sat, 15 Aug 2015
Source: Alaska Dispatch News (AK)
Copyright: 2015 Alaska Dispatch Publishing
Note: Anchorage Daily News until July '14
Author: Laurel Andrews


On Friday afternoon, a crowd gathered around a man struggling to sit 
upright outside Bean's Cafe in downtown Anchorage. Emergency 
responders, employees and clients of the soup kitchen circled around 
the man as he swayed unsteadily on a bench.

It was the second medical call related to the synthetic drug Spice at 
Bean's Cafe that day, client services supervisor Tracy Saakvitne said 
as she watched the scene unfold.

A few minutes later, an ambulance arrived. The man was led away, his 
body limp and his head rocked forward. Two responders flanked him, 
one on either side, and held him upright.

As the crowd watched him shuffle away, another Bean's client, George 
Shoogukuwrk, stood up and turned to the group.

"It's killing you, don't you know that?" Shoogukuwrk shouted. "You 
don't know what they're putting in there. It's stupid, man. Get it 
through your brain, cause you don't need that Spice."

Since late July, Anchorage has seen a surge in the number of 
Spice-related medical emergencies.

Between July 31 and Aug. 13, the Anchorage Fire Department made 110 
medical transports for "known or suspected" Spice use across 
Anchorage, said Erich Scheunemann, assistant chief of emergency 
medical service operations. It's the most he's ever seen in such a 
short span of time.

Many of the cases occurred downtown, and many involved people 
Anchorage police call "high-risk" -- chronic inebriates, homeless 
people and people suffering from drug addictions.

Bean's Cafe, which provides social services to Anchorage's homeless, 
has been hit hard by the spike in Spice-related emergencies. 
Executive director Lisa Sauder called the scene at the organization a 
"war zone" during a rash of hospitalizations in early August. She 
believes the synthetic drug is to blame for at least some of the 
deaths of seven clients in past weeks.

"I can't even tell you. We're exhausted," Saakvitne said Friday as 
medics helped the man struggling to remain upright.

Spice is a synthetic drug that is typically made by spraying 
psychotropic compounds onto plant materials. It's a cheap high that 
is difficult to regulate, because manufacturers will often switch 
ingredients as soon as a chemical compound is made illegal. Police 
said they believe those recently hospitalized may have used Spice 
that was combined "with flora that has 'hemlock-like' characteristics."

In January 2014, the Assembly passed a new law that banned Spice 
based on its packaging and a list of labeling criteria. Later that 
year, a similarly worded statewide ban went into effect. Within 
weeks, Spice was nowhere to be found on store shelves, although 
police said last week they have heard rumors of some stores selling 
the drug behind the counter.

Clients at Bean's say "Zero Gravity" is the brand causing the rash of 
medical emergencies. Like many brands, it's packaged as "potpourri." 
Smoking Spice gives you spins, a few of the clients said. It makes 
you hallucinate. It's like you're drunk. It makes you angry.

Outside Bean's Cafe, Shoogukuwrk's eyes were swelling with tears as 
he pleaded with others to avoid the drug. "Every single day, the fire 
department and medics are down here for the purpose of Spice," 
Shoogukuwrk said.

The reason people use Spice is the same as other mind-altering 
substances, Shoogukuwk said. "The people that are doing Spice are 
hurting, same as alcohol."

'I guess it was just a matter of time'

Nationwide, medical issues stemming from the drug appear to be increasing.

U.S. poison control centers are reporting an uptick in calls related 
to the drug. Through Aug. 11, there have been 5,220 calls related to 
exposure to synthetic marijuana nationwide this year, the American 
Association of Poison Control Centers writes. That already far 
surpasses the number of calls for both 2013 (2,668 calls) and 2014 
(3,682 calls). However, the 2015 total has yet to top 2011, when 
poison control centers fielded just under 7,000 calls.

In April, calls to poison centers spiked dramatically before leveling 
off at numbers similar to 2014, the Centers for Disease Control and 
Prevention reported in July. Most calls came from men who averaged 26 
years old. Reports from New York City have noted a marked increase in 
emergency room visits in recent months.

In Alaska, the increase appears to be confined to Anchorage, wrote 
Jason Grenn, public information officer for the Alaska Department of 
Health and Social Services.

Spice-related emergency calls "typically come in as seizures, 
overdoses, unconscious, difficulty breathing," said Scheunemann.

Despite the hospitalizations, police are limited in how they can respond.

Possessing and selling Spice is not a crime. Anchorage Police 
Department acting deputy chief Garry Gilliam compared the fine to a 
traffic violation -- it's a civil offense. If you are caught with 
Spice, you are fined $500 per packet.

That means police only hand out tickets for the violation unless they 
can "prove criminal intent," Gilliam said.

"Say, for instance, that someone either sells or shares with or gives 
Spice to somebody else and they get sick and die from it. The 
question is: Did they do that knowingly?" Gilliam said.

So far police have identified eight suspects who may have been tied 
to the recent outbreak, Gilliam said, but whether any arrests will 
eventually be made remains to be seen.

Since early July, one person has been cited for possessing and 
possibly selling Spice. Adburrihiam Harris was cited on Aug. 6 for 
possession and was singled out by a Bean's Cafe client as a possible 
seller. Days later, he was cited again for possessing five packets of 
Spice, a $2,500 fine.

"Our goal here is to try to identify the supplier, because we lack 
teeth to do anything criminally," APD spokeswoman Jennifer Castro said.

Do the cases represent a rise in use? "I don't have a definitive 
answer for that," Gilliam said. "Maybe ... this is just a bad batch 
. or maybe it's a new chemical element" in the drug.

"They're constantly changing the compounds so they can stay ahead of 
the laws," Gilliam said later. "They keep manipulating the compounds 
and I guess it was just a matter of time. It's like Russian roulette."

'We're hoping to save some lives at the end of this'

While the police and fire department continue their response work, 
the state and the Anchorage Department of Health and Social Services 
are working to identify what in the drug is making people sick, where 
the drug is coming from and how to characterize the outbreak, said 
Dr. Joe McLaughlin, state epidemiologist and chief of the Alaska 
Section of Epidemiology.

In the coming weeks, toxicology reports will be done on six of the 
Bean's clients who died recently. Hopefully, that will shed light on 
whether Spice was a factor in their deaths, McLaughlin said.

While McLaughlin noted the Zero Gravity brand was suspected as the 
one responsible for medical emergencies, "that may be just one of 
many different products that is causing people to become ill," he said.

For Nancy Burke, Anchorage's newly assigned homeless coordinator, 
these incidents are "another reason we want to get people into 
homes," she said.

Homeless people and chronic inebriates are "the market" for the 
drugs, Burke said.

"Everything's about safe housing ... if we can get people engaged in 
different goals, then they don't get caught up in the cycle," Burke 
said. Between the deaths and the hospitalizations, Bean's Sauder said 
there may be a small silver lining for the organization: a "marked 
increase" in the number of chronically homeless clients who are now 
are seeking a home.

"We are seeing an increased willingness to really look at their 
situation in life and ask for help," Sauder said. "We're hoping to 
save some lives at the end of this."
- ---
MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom