Spice hospitalizations on the rise, but users not deterred

AFD says most of the Spice-related calls come from downtown along this corridor.
AFD says most of the Spice-related calls come from downtown along this corridor.
Hospitalizations from Spice usage are spiking again. The Anchorage Fire Department has transported about 20 people per day for the past week. Most calls come from the area between 3rd and Karluk and Town Square Park and the Downtown Transit Center. People say they know the drug is dangerous, but some of them choose to keep using it anyway.

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Anna Lincoln sits at a table at Bean’s Cafe working on a crossword puzzle and finishing her lunch. From her perspective, the day has started pretty well.

“Today I came down, I didn’t see nobody laying down, so I was happy for that,” she says.

Lincoln is referencing people being knocked out from Spice, a street drug made from an ever-changing mixture of chemicals and dried plants. It’s been the cause of more than 450 emergency calls in the past three months.

Lincoln says people are aware of the risks, but they still use it “cause it’s cheap and easy to get for them. It’s very available.”

Bean’s staff say a spice stick, which is like a joint, can go for about $10, but people share the cost. Lincoln says she used it once, but by accident. She thought she was buying real marijuana.

“I bought one for $5 and I smoke it out there. I started shaking. No more. No more after that. One puff, that was it,” she recalls. “I smashed it on the ground, and I looked for the person that sold it to me. I scold him right away.”

Bean’s client Archie Swan says he was curious about Spice, so he tried it once with his friend.

“I start freaking out, sitting there, and I start looking at all the lights across the street.” He felt like the lights were eyes that were staring at him. “And I freaked out. I thought that was the end of it for me, but 10 minutes later all that feeling I had was gone.” And he says he’ll never try it again.

But others are less concerned about the risks. One man, who declined to be taped or give his name, says he’s been hospitalized twice with seizures from smoking the drug and his fiance died because she was using it and drinking. He smokes it anyway because its easier to get than marijuana and he wants a high, even though it’s very different from pot.

Beans Executive Director Lisa Sauder, whose staff has responded to many of the emergencies, says the effects of the drug vary widely depending on the batch.

“Some people smoke it and are just fine. Other people become catatonic. Some people become violent. And I think that really shows the wide variation in what the drug may possess. This is not a naturally occurring substance. This is not marijuana, this is not cocaine. This is a very different deal.”

Sauder says she thinks the mayor’s proposal to make selling Spice a crime could make a difference. “It’s not even a misdemeanor charge to be selling this substance. So if you’re a drug dealer, what drug are you going to sell? You’re going to sell the one that’s the least risk to you.”

But she says the law needs to be coupled with more treatment opportunities.

Sauder says Spice started appearing near Beans about a year and a half ago. Its usage has increased as its become more easily available on the street.

Anne Hillman is the healthy communities editor at Alaska Public Media and a host of Hometown, Alaska. Reach her at ahillman@alaskapublic.org. Read more about Anne here.

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