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Spice blamed for dozens of hospitalizations in Anchorage

  • Author: Tegan Hanlon
  • Updated: May 31, 2016
  • Published August 5, 2015

Anchorage police said Wednesday that at least 30 people were taken to the hospital over the past four days with serious health problems related to using Spice, an illegal designer drug.

In response to the recent increase in Spice-related hospitalizations, police released a statement Wednesday afternoon asking people to contact them with any information on the source of the synthetic drug banned by local laws and a state law.

Lisa Sauder, the executive director of Bean's Cafe, said Wednesday that a stream of ambulances responded throughout the day to the downtown soup kitchen that provides meals and social services for homeless people.

"It's like a war zone," Sauder said. "This is just out of control."

At least seven people in Anchorage went to the hospital Wednesday for health problems that stemmed from Spice use, police said. That followed five hospitalizations on Tuesday, eight on Monday and 10 on Sunday, according to police.

"People are just collapsing and becoming unresponsive. Some are complaining about chest pain. Some are having seizures," Sauder said.

Some people suffered the symptoms on Bean's Cafe property Wednesday and others were nearby. In several cases, staff administered CPR, Sauder said.

"It's unbelievable," she said. "It's scary."

To make Spice, manufacturers typically spray psychotropic compounds on plant materials. But police said Wednesday that they believe those recently hospitalized may have used Spice that was combined "with flora that has 'hemlock like' characteristics."

The ever-changing ingredients of Spice once dizzied the lawmakers who attempted to ban it. The Anchorage Assembly outlawed Spice in 2010 based on the drug's composition. But nimble manufacturers could quickly change the ingredients.

In January 2014, the Assembly passed a new law that banned Spice based on its packaging and a list of labeling criteria. Later that year, a similarly worded statewide ban went into effect.

Under the Anchorage law, people or businesses caught possessing or selling Spice can face fines of $500 for each package of the drug found.

Jennifer Castro, police spokeswoman, said police have not yet pinned down where the Spice that triggered the hospitalizations this week came from.

Police have not recently issued any tickets for Spice, she said, nor have they seen Spice sold in smoke shops.

However, Castro noted that sources have told police that some shops may continue to quietly sell Spice behind the counter.

Police said those hospitalized for Spice this week have come from downtown Anchorage, Muldoon and Midtown. Most of the patients were homeless and their ages varied, Castro said.

Symptoms ranged from "not being able to breathe to loss of consciousness, seizures and rapid heart rate causing respiratory failure," police said.

On Wednesday afternoon, Bean's Cafe held a memorial for seven people who recently died, some found on Anchorage streets and others in tents.

Sauder said that while there's no definitive proof, she suspects Spice may have led to some of those deaths.

"It's sunny. It's beautiful weather," she said. "We've had high numbers (of deaths) due to exposure and inclement weather. Our clients, our friends are not dying of exposure."

She said that Anchorage medics and police chaplains reminded Bean's Cafe clients Wednesday that "you don't know what's in Spice. You don't know what it is."

Castro said police will have to wait for toxicology reports to determine if any of the chemicals found in Spice were also found in the bodies. She said some of the health symptoms that appeared to lead to the deaths, like cardiac arrest, can also arise as symptoms of using Spice.

At Bean's Cafe, Sauder said staff fear that at the beginning of the month, when clients receive checks -- some for disabilities, some for other reasons -- more drug- and alcohol-related problems will arise.

"It appears our worst fears have come true," she said.

Staff members have found Spice on clients this week, she said. They have turned over a few bags of evidence to police. In one case, they took a rolled Spice cigarette out of a client's clenched fist, she said.

Sauder said she believes Spice's cheap price and intense high may attract Bean's Cafe clients to the drug. She said Bean's Cafe staff believes the Spice is coming from dealers on the street.

City spokesperson Myer Hutchinson said Mayor Ethan Berkowitz remained in regular contact with police and medics this week about those hospitalized for Spice-related health problems.

"There's the concern that it's coming from outside Anchorage and we're eager to track that down," Hutchinson said.

Sauder thanked Anchorage police, medics, the mayor's office and governor's office Wednesday for working with Bean's Cafe over the past several weeks -- during the string of deaths and now the onslaught of Spice-related hospitalizations.

"They are all working with us and that's what it's going to take," she said.

Police are asking anyone with information on the suppliers of the Spice to call Anchorage Crime Stoppers at 907-561-STOP or go to anchoragecrimestoppers.com.

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