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Troopers intercept suspected synthetic pot bound for Little Diomede

Jill Burke

Most of the time, a specialized task force dedicated to thwarting the presence of drugs and alcohol in Western Alaska runs across the expected: Booze being sent from one city or village to another, or people trying to smuggle it in via airline luggage. In addition to liquor, it's not unusual for the teams to seize marijuana destined for Alaska's small, remote communities. The effects of addiction and abuse are tough burdens for isolated communities to cope with. And the farther away you live from law enforcement or organized help, the more difficult it is to deal with the violence and public health problems that inevitably arise.

Late last month, though, investigators came across a different kind of bad drug, one that's marketed to teens, easy to get, and is often shipped to Alaska from out of state or overseas. It's a marijuana alternative known as "spice" -- a mix of herbs coated with psychoactive chemicals to simulate the same high that comes from THC, the active ingredient in pot. Herbal supply companies make the leafy mixes in hopes of skirting state and federal drug laws. If it's not pot and it's not technically the same chemical compounds as currently listed controlled substances, the presumption is you're not breaking the law by buying or selling it. But not only are synthetic herb blends illegal, authorities claim they are often "more potent and dangerous than marijuana."

Working with postal service inspectors, the Western Alaska Alcohol and Narcotics Team came across a package sent from an herbal supply company in Florida bound for Little Diomede, a small, rocky island in the middle of the Bering Strait, closer to Russia than mainland Alaska. A little more than 100 people live there. The package was addressed to a 19-year old man from the island, who gave troopers permission to open the box and look inside. Once opened, they found 27 five-gram packets of "suspected spice," individually packaged and marketed as "potpourri."

Aggressive apathy

In March, villagers on the island had complained that spice was a growing problem in the small community, zapping the creative motivations of ivory carvers and skin sewers, and sidelining older teens from school. Few people were applying for the part-time jobs the community has to offer: trail maintenance, store clerks, trash pick-up.

Back then, village council president Orville Ahkinga blamed the apathy on what he thought was a relatively new phenomenon to Little Diomede -- the use of synthetic marijuana. It had gotten so bad that the village council had called a community meeting to work on how to ban the drugs from the island.

“If it continues, this poor little village will die off because of that stuff. It's addictive,” he had said at the time.

Eight months later, “it's still a problem here," Michelle Kulukhon, a tribal coordinator and secretary for the village council, said Friday. She didn't have precise details about specific incidents but had heard enough through the small community to know that one or two spice users had wound up at the village clinic, and she had the impression it had caused others to become somewhat violent.

It remains a serious enough issue that the village had planned to include it on its agenda when visited by a high-profile group of dignitaries. U.S. Senator Lisa Murkowski, members of the U.S. Coast Guard, the Alaska National Guard, Alaska State Senator Donny Olson, and Lt. Governor Mead Treadwell were scheduled to make a stop in Diomede to return a National Guard armory there to the community. Weather, Kulukhon said, had delayed the trip and the people of Diomede are still awaiting the visit.

Weather delays are not uncommon on the island, which is serviced by helicopter once a week when the sea is ice-free. Once the ice returns during winter, a runway is carved into the frozen water and regular fixed-wing airline service resumes.

Alaska State Troopers, who are not stationed on the island, make one scheduled visit a month.

The rise of spice

Alaska criminalized spice in 2011, and federal laws are also catching up with the trend. In July, synthetic drugs were added to the federal controlled substances act. Synthetic drugs that are similar to listed drugs, but not identical, are able to treated as illegal through the controlled substance analogue enforcement act, which allows related drugs to be treated as controlled substances if they are proven to be chemically or pharmacologically similar to those already listed.

"These synthetic drugs are manufactured devoid of any quality control. They are extremely dangerous and are not for human consumption. They are marketed towards are  youth and give the appearance that they are safe, when they are in fact deadly,"  Jodie Underwood, a special agent with the Seattle office of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency, said via email.  "In 2010, poison centers nationwide responded to about 3,200 calls related to synthetic 'Spice' and 'bath salts.' In 2011, that number jumped to more than 13,000 calls. Sixty percent of the cases involved patients 25 and younger."

Also in July, the DEA conducted a first-of-its kind nationwide mission specifically targeting synthetic drugs, both the smokable herb blends like spice, and other drugs that mimic stimulants and hallucinogens patterned after cocaine, LSD, MDMA and methamphetamine. "Operation Logjam," which took place across the nation, netted 90 arrests, and the seizure of  more than 5 million packets of designer drugs and $36 million in cash. None of the busts were in Alaska, but the DEA says both classes of the synthetic drugs are "on the radar" here in the Last Frontier.

The lone package intercepted at the post office in Anchorage is a minute spec of the amount of product making its way through the nation. But when it's impact is rattling the youth and future of an already struggling, small community like Little Diomede, the potency in public impact is magnified.

Contact Jill Burke at jill(at)alaskadispatch.com.