Crime & Justice

Shelter director: 'Spice' is the most vexing drug Skid Row has seen

A person who was seen
A person who was seen "writhing in the driveway and flipping into traffic and blocking traffic" in front of Union Rescue Mission Friday is suspected to have been suffering from an overdose of the synthetic drug 'spice'.
Courtesy Andy Bales, Union Rescue Mission

The synthetic drug 'spice' is responsible for some of the most disturbing behavior Skid Row has seen, according to Union Rescue Mission CEO Andy Bales, who has worked in the area for over a decade. 

Between Friday and Saturday, 10 people, including a police officer, were treated for likely overdoses of the drug. (The officer was treated after inhaling noxious fumes at the scene). All are expected to recover, according to the Los Angeles Times

Bales said he witnessed one of the first such ODs right in front of the shelter before leaving work Friday.

"The person was writhing in the driveway and flipping into traffic and blocking traffic and nearly getting run over," Bales said.

He added that he's seen the effects of spice — a synthetic form of marijuana — for years, and that its been quietly taking a heavy toll on the neighborhood. 

Bales said he's seen the effects of spice — a synthetic form of marijuana — for years, and that its been taking a toll on the neighborhood.
Bales said he's seen the effects of spice — a synthetic form of marijuana — for years, and that its been taking a toll on the neighborhood.
Courtesy Andy Bales, Union Rescue Mission

"If you were to walk there tonight or today, you'd have people offering you spice every other step," he said, adding that the drug is sold openly and legally. 

Manufacturers stay a step in front of law enforcement by altering the chemical compounds that go into it, which are often advertised as potpourri or other seemingly harmless aromatics, Officer Deon Joseph told the L.A. Times. 

The paper reports:  

“They change the chemical components to make it untraceable,” Joseph said. “It's five times stronger than marijuana, and can cause two common signs of overdosing depending on the chemical components. One is the appearance of paralysis or someone being in a catatonic state for hours. Or causing them to hallucinate and go berserk for long trips. It's common to buy it on skid row for anywhere from one to two dollars for one joint. And that one hit is pretty powerful.“

Bales said spice is particularly harmful to people who already struggling with mental illness. "They absolutely go ballistic," he said.

"We've dealt with alcohol for years," Bales said. "We've dealt with crack cocaine. We've dealt with heroin. We've dealt with meth. But spice — and people using spice — is the most unpredictable drug we've ever had to come up against in our work."

Bales said he suspects Saturday's overdoses were a result of a bad batch that was concocted within the tents that line areas of Skid Row, where the drug is often sold and smoked. He added that the said the pungent fumes waft out along the street. 

"It's a brutal smell," Bales said. "Like your neighbor burning plastic or rubber along with marijuana. I guess that's closest I can come to describing it." 

Officials are investigating what substances were responsible for Friday and Saturday's emergencies.