Pubdate: Sun, 29 May 2016
Source: Alaska Dispatch News (AK)
Copyright: 2016 Alaska Dispatch Publishing
Note: Anchorage Daily News until July '14
Author: Laurel Andrews


On Dec. 1, 2015, Dalon White woke up in the hospital, unsure how he 
got there. The last thing he remembered was smoking a "stick" of 
Spice he'd bought for $5 in downtown Anchorage.

"Next thing you know, the world's spinning and I was falling over," White said.

White, then 21, was charged with a crime that day, but he didn't 
realize it. He faces a misdemeanor drug charge, one of about 50 that 
have been issued since Anchorage criminalized Spice six months ago.

At the time, the city was overwhelmed by a public health crisis. 
Spice, a synthetic drug with hundreds of chemical variations, had 
been causing overdoses en masse in Anchorage. At its peak, medics 
responded to 25 suspected Spice calls for ambulances a day.

Spice users - many of whom police say are homeless and targeted by 
dealers - clogged emergency rooms. Medics scrambled to treat 
catatonic or convulsing users, who sometimes fought bitterly with 
emergency responders while under the drug's intense influence.

Downtown, at the joint campus of Bean's Cafe and Brother Francis 
Shelter, employees watched a nightmare unfold on the nonprofits' 
doorsteps as ambulances arrived in waves day after day.

"Doing nothing wasn't an option," Anchorage Mayor Ethan Berkowitz 
said of the crisis in an interview earlier this month.

In November, five months after the crisis took hold, the Anchorage 
Assembly unanimously passed a law making the use, possession and sale 
of Spice a misdemeanor crime.

Now, six months later, reports of Spice-related medical emergencies 
have plummeted. City officials point to the law as a likely factor in 
the decline. Correlation isn't causation, they acknowledge, but the 
downward trend is a good sign.

But others say the law has had unintended consequences that continue 
to drain resources and cycle a vulnerable population through the court system.

For this story, 52 cases - representing all the Spice charges that 
the Anchorage municipality has prosecuted as of May 23 - were 
reviewed and cataloged.

Overwhelmingly, the cases play out in the same way. They start with a 
medical emergency and end with a plea deal. Jail time is common. In 
the most extreme case, one man spent 53 days in jail - at a cost to 
the state of $7,473 - stemming from a $250 citation.

No longer the drug of choice

By all accounts, Spice is no longer wreaking havoc on the city's 
emergency responders.

In October, at the height of the crisis, 1 in 5 medical transports 
were for suspected Spice use symptoms. By March and April, according 
to Anchorage Fire Department tallies, that number had dropped to 1 in 20.

"Taken in the best light, it suggests (the law had) some impact," 
city prosecutor Seneca Theno said of the declining numbers.

Police, the mayor and the Anchorage Fire Department medical director 
agree that the law likely was one factor in the decline, whether 
through changing user behavior or deterring dealers who had been 
targeting the vulnerable homeless population.

Not everyone believes the law has deterred people from using the drug.

"My guess would be no," said Justin Tapp, a defense attorney who has 
handled some of the cases.

At Bean's Cafe, clients say Spice is no longer the drug of choice.

People have begun to avoid the drug that has garnered such a bad 
reputation, Dalon White said. Six deaths outside the Brother Francis 
Shelter last summer reverberated throughout the homeless community 
and are frequently invoked when people discuss the drug.

During lunch one afternoon, Bean's clients Duane Culleum and Vernita 
Tinker both said they stopped using the drug when they wound up in 
the hospital, Culleum said.

Now people are "going back to what God made," Culleum said, referring 
to marijuana, a common sentiment of people interviewed for this 
story. Others say they simply prefer alcohol.

Spice has been around for years but it wasn't until this last summer 
that a huge spike in medical calls was attributed to the drug. No one 
is quite sure why.

White says that over the years Spice has changed from a mellow high 
to an "intense" experience. Manufacturers continue to tweak the 
formula in an effort to thwart bans on specific compounds. When one 
compound is criminalized, another appears in its place.

In California, Spice is still sending scores of people to the ER, 
according to recent reports. Other cities have seen a dizzying spike 
and decline similar to Anchorage's.

In New York, emergency calls are down 85 percent, reports say, after 
a law was made that criminalized only the sale of Spice. In South 
Florida, another synthetic drug known as Flakka has all but 
disappeared. The report credits a local education campaign and the 
arrests of 151 people by the DEA last October in a massive synthetic 
drug ring bust as two likely reasons for the decline.

Meanwhile, in China - the country where much of the manufacturing of 
Spice is believed to occur - the government banned 116 types of 
synthetic cannabinoids in October.

'We use citations ... to change behavior'

In Anchorage, only three cases so far have been prosecuted for 
selling or distributing Spice, although leading into the drug's 
criminalization police repeatedly said that dealers were the main targets.

The first two cases were Mark Purcella and Carol Halley, who were 
charged with selling Spice and meth from a trailer downtown.

The third, Stewart Tocktoo, was charged with distributing Spice in 
December. Officers found him in a homeless camp alongside a person 
who had overdosed on Spice. Tocktoo told police he had supplied the 
Spice and police found a plastic baggie stuck to his pant leg with 
what was presumed to be the drug.

Users were charged in the remaining 49 cases. Theno said. "There was 
never a question" the users would be cited.

At Bean's Cafe, employees recognize most of the names of those 
charged with a Spice crime. Many list their address as either Bean's 
or Brother Francis on court documents, or simply write "homeless." 
Every person charged with Spice use has a prior criminal history.

Those arrested for Spice possession and use are often picked up 
downtown. The downtown transit center appears frequently in court 
documents. Halfway houses also generate Spice calls.

Most Spice emergencies don't end in a criminal charge. Between Nov. 
10 and March 15, when the fire department stopped keeping detailed 
data, only about 9 percent of Spice emergency calls ended with a drug charge.

"We issue citations to educate and change behavior," said Anchorage 
Police Department Capt. Kenneth McCoy.

Citations are used in place of arresting someone, a common practice 
for many low-level offenses, McCoy said.

Despite this, Spice users charged with a crime "almost always end up 
in jail," said defense attorney Tapp.

The beginning: A medical emergency

Nearly every Spice charge begins with a medical emergency.

Spice users are found in various states of distress: "vomiting and 
could not stand"; "banging his head against a wall"; "on the floor 
shaking"; "in a catatonic state"; "lost consciousness"; "screamed and 
acted belligerent," various charging documents say.

During these emergencies, the patient often admits to using Spice. 
Medics may also tell police that a person appears to be on Spice. A 
drug presumed to be Spice is also found on the person as medics and 
police conduct searches, although that drug is never 
laboratory-tested to prove that it's Spice, except in the case of 
Purcella and Halley, charged with selling the drug.

Spice isn't the only substance that will get someone charged with a 
crime during a medical emergency. In DUIs and some other drug cases, 
people will be charged at the scene. Beyond that, "I can't think of 
too many," McCoy said.

Gary Shawn Iyatunguk was issued his citation after police found him 
in front of the Anchorage Museum, unable to walk and saying he had 
been beaten up - though police said he had no visible injuries.

He lost consciousness in the back of an officer's car. His "eyes were 
rolled back into his head, and he did not respond to verbal stimuli," 
the charges say. At some point, he admitted to smoking Spice.

As the new law was being debated, police said it would help them go 
after the dealers.

"We know who they are," police Lt. Sean Case said of the dealers in 
November, adding that charging users who wind up in emergency rooms 
on Spice would be "pretty ridiculous."

But in April, police said that they had to apply the law equally, 
whether someone is homeless or hospitalized or otherwise.

"If there's evidence, we react to that," McCoy said.

The middle: Court

Iyatunguk, who is identified as homeless in the court documents, 
didn't show up for his court date one month later. It's a familiar 
pattern for those charged with Spice use.

The citations look like traffic tickets but they represent a 
misdemeanor drug charge. Anchorage police aren't permitted to arrest 
someone for a low-level offense like a Spice crime; they issue 
citations instead, according to McCoy.

"I remember getting some form of paperwork," said White, the man 
charged in December. "I had no idea I was charged with anything, 
really. I didn't know what was happening at the time."

At the bottom of each citation is a court date listed about a month 
out. The bottom half of a Spice citation, where court appearance 
information is listed. (Laurel Andrews, Alaska Dispatch News)

During an initial interview, McCoy said the standard for citing 
someone with Spice use or possession is having Spice on their person. 
Along with the physical evidence, witness accounts and symptoms, 
police "paint a picture" of what's gone on, McCoy said.

In most cases, that's true. But in 13 of the cases, charging 
documents describe no physical evidence. Instead, there's only an 
admission of use, or behavior that medics and police have come to 
recognize as being linked to Spice.

When asked to respond to those facts, McCoy said that he had been 
speaking generally.

"There are not too many absolutes in law enforcement. Officers have a 
wide range of discretion and have to use their best judgment," he 
wrote in an email.

Tapp says that's a problem. If police don't find the substance on the 
person, there's no way to verify that they actually used the drug.

"It is a lot easier to charge a ... Spice case than it is to actually 
prove it beyond a reasonable doubt," he wrote in an email.

Lack of possession has been grounds for dismissal in some of his 
cases, he said, though he declined to say which ones. Most of these 
cases don't get to a point where someone challenges the lack of 
evidence, though. Instead, people take a plea deal.

The end: Plea deal

When someone misses a court date, an arrest warrant is issued. This 
is common in the court system, said Theno, the city prosecutor.

In October, Theno said she hoped the new law would not increase the 
number of homeless people spending time in jail. But that's what has happened.

Whether days or months later, many Spice users with warrants are 
eventually picked up. Sometimes they are arrested for committing 
another crime, like assault or trespassing. In some cases, those 
warrants remain outstanding.

Once they are picked up, Spice defendants may be in jail for only an 
afternoon - or they might be there for weeks.

Iyatunguk was arrested less than a week after his warrant was issued. 
He spent 12 days in jail before the charges against him were dismissed.

Peter Post Richard was found at the downtown bus station slurring his 
speech and slumped over when he was cited for Spice. He didn't show 
up for his court hearing on Dec. 30. Almost two months later, police 
picked him up. He spent seven days in jail before taking a plea deal 
with a $200 fine and all jail time suspended.

The longest jail stay solely for Spice was 53 days. Joseph Albert was 
cited for using Spice twice in one week. The first time, he was found 
outside Nordstrom arguing with "a parking sign or himself," speaking 
gibberish and eventually passing out, according to charging documents.

The second time, he was found outside the Egan Center, banging his 
head against a wall, mumbling and swiping at bugs. He didn't show up 
for court, was later arrested and spent 53 days in custody awaiting a 
mental health evaluation. He eventually pleaded no contest and was 
given a suspended jail sentence.

Spice users charged only with a Spice crime have spent a total of 159 
days in custody, not including times when someone spent an afternoon 
in jail. That represents a cost of $22,419, according to the 
Department of Corrections.

For most cases, people accept the plea deal with all jail time 
suspended, sometimes a $250 fine and a varying number of years of probation.

Lacking money for bail, "people usually just take the offer because 
they want to get out of jail," Tapp said.

This cycle - in and out of the court system, with nothing gained - 
isn't unique to Spice, says Nancy Burke, the city's homelessness coordinator.

"That's the cycle that happens to (trespassers), that's the cycle 
that happens for all of these. That's the symptom of homelessness," she said.

Does the drug law criminalize or protect the homeless?

Whether the law has criminalized or protected a vulnerable population 
is disputed among those familiar to the problem.

"The entire system criminalizes them. People are so trapped in 
homelessness. There just is no out," said Burke.

Tapp agreed: "The bottom line is you're not going to fix the issues 
. by just throwing people in jail and saying, 'Do better next time.'"

Berkowitz argues that the law "disproportionately protected" the 
homeless, given Spice's subsequent decline and the reduction in 
medical emergencies. Berkowitz said that for those cases where people 
do serve more extensive jail time, the judge could move to release 
the person from custody. People should be treated proportionally to 
the crime, he said.

Theno, the city prosecutor, believes that a case should not be 
dismissed simply due to a person's time in jail, as the goal is to 
hold people accountable, she said.

"I don't care whether they served 0 days in jail or 100 days in 
jail," Theno said.

For Theno, the Spice cycle represents a failure of personal 
responsibility. Defendants - especially those who have criminal 
histories and are familiar with the court system - should know to 
appear in court, she said. The choice to not appear, and wind up 
getting arrested, is on them, she says.

"Are the cards stacked against them? I don't know. We can't have a 
different system for people in a different life circumstance," Theno said.

Every official agrees that additional measures are needed to 
alleviate the underlying causes of drug use. For Burke, it's housing. 
She points to results from the city's Karluk Manor, where many of the 
city's chronic inebriates are housed.

Eighty percent of Karluk Manor residents have retained their housing, 
Burke says. "That stability represents a whole bunch of court time 
that's gone away."

To this end, Berkowitz has put much of Anchorage's surplus toward 
services for the homeless and plans to start a work program for some 
of the city's transient population.

For Tapp, treatment is the solution: "You've got to address the root 
issue or you're just plugging the holes without fixing the leak."

White's case bucks the trend. In May, he was admitted to Anchorage's 
Mental Health Court, available to Anchorage residents diagnosed with 
mental illness who have been charged with a misdemeanor crime.

White will undergo an 18-month program that includes regular 
appearances before a judge and support from a case coordinator. If he 
completes the program, his charge, which is dismissed, will remain that way.

Meanwhile, a few outstanding Spice cases still remain to be played 
out. At Bean's Cafe, employees say that heroin has moved back into 
the forefront for many among Anchorage's transient population.

For now, the Spice crisis has largely subsided in Anchorage, leaving 
only some pending criminal charges in its wake.

Correction: An earlier version of this story quoted Mayor Ethan 
Berkowitz as saying a judge could move to have a person's case 
dismissed. He actually said a judge could move to let a person out of 
custody if they had served time disproportionate to the charge.
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