Health

'Spice' suspected to have sickened more people on Skid Row

Spice and other synthetic cannabinoids are marketed under many different names.
Spice and other synthetic cannabinoids are marketed under many different names.
Schorle/Wikimedia Commons

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A synthetic street drug is believed to have sickened people in Los Angeles' Skid Row area for the second time in the last three days. Since Friday, more than 50 people have ended up in the hospital with similar symptoms.

Police and fire officials suspect the culprit is a drug called “spice." It’s a cheap synthetic that mimics the effects of marijuana, but can be much stronger. Authorities are asking those with loved ones on Skid Row to re-engage with them and bring them home, LAPD Capt. Don Graham told KPCC.

On Monday, 18 people in the Skid Row area experienced vomiting, slurred speech and difficulty with muscular coordination. The L.A. Fire Department says it took 14 of them to the hospital.

"The spectrum of responses to this particular strain has been everything from just straight catatonic, unconscious and having respiratory problems, to ambulatory but severely delusional, to just flat-out violent," Graham said. "This homeless population is downtown is incredibly vulnerable. It's not just vulnerable to crime, but it's also vulnerable to the temptation of the illusion of someone coming along with a magic cigarette that can take away their anxieties for a day."
 
On Friday, 50 people in the same area reported similar symptoms; 38 of them ended up hospitalized, according to the Fire Department. Looking at crime statistics, the drug may have hit the streets on Thursday, Graham said.

"It's presumably spice," said Dr. Marc Eckstein, the Fire Department's medical director. "Because it's synthetic, nobody for sure knows what active ingredients are in there; the strength is variable."

Graham said that without the intervention of the Fire Department and medical personnel, the drug could have proven fatal.

The drug spreads quickly due to its low price point, with one stick of spice costing as little as a dollar, Graham said. He described how the drug is created, starting with a chemical that mimics the effects of THC.

"What happens is the chemist involved, or the distributor involved will take that chemical and spray it onto vegetation that's prepared in the same way that tobacco is shredded for a cigarette, or marijuana is prepared to roll it into a joint," Graham said.

Spice and similar synthetics are often labeled not for human consumption as a way to avoid legal trouble. Authorities have only branded some synthetic cannabinoids as illegal; there are hundreds of versions, and each can have a slightly different chemical composition.
 
The LAPD is urging those who may have spice to get rid of it. Following Friday's hospitalizations, police conducted outreach, going from tent to tent and reaching out to hotels, missions, activist groups and others to spread the word of a potential bad batch of spice.

"We have confiscated or had turned into the police station a large quantity of the possibly tainted cigarettes," Graham said. "The homelessness in downtown L.A. is what's actually harming these people, because they are subject to attack, they are subject to these rampant drug dealers, they're subject to just the random violence that can occur in someone who's suffering from mental illness."

Back in April a similar rash of complaints happened on Skid Row. The drug is not just a problem in Los Angeles; it has cropped up in other cities, including New York, where more than 100 people got sick last month. And while selling or distributing spice is illegal, it's not illegal to have it or smoke it, Graham said — so police are focusing their efforts on dealers.

This story has been updated.