Monday may have been worst day yet in Anchorage Spice crisis

Spice-related medical emergencies spiked again Monday in Anchorage, with the fire department saying it might have made the most transports in one day since Spice emergencies increased this summer.

On Tuesday morning, Anchorage Mayor Ethan Berkowitz announced that his administration would be introducing an ordinance that would make the sale and use of Spice a crime and impose penalties far steeper than what is currently on the books.

Erich Scheunemann, assistant chief of emergency medical service operations, said records show around 30 people were taken to hospitals Monday for suspected use of Spice, "tentatively ... the most pickups since mid-July," he wrote.

Since the number of suspected Spice cases exploded in mid-July, emergency calls have fluctuated. Calls peaked in early August, then again on Aug. 20 before settling down for much of September. But as the last weekend in September approached, the numbers shot back up again, according to data from Scheunemann.

Suspected Spice use made up 10 percent of all transports from mid-July to Sept. 27, and the numbers have remained high through October.

An unofficial tally of fire department medical transports from Oct. 1 to 19 shows that roughly 18 percent involved suspected Spice use, according to Scheunemann.

On Tuesday, Berkowitz said in a media release that his proposed ordinance would strengthen the municipality's ability to crack down on use of the drug.

Anchorage police have had little power to stall the sale or use of Spice. Possessing and selling it is not a crime -- the $500 fine is a civil violation, akin to a traffic ticket, and no criminal charges can be filed unless police can prove criminal intent.

The ordinance, to be introduced at the Anchorage Assembly meeting on Oct. 27, would make using and selling Spice a misdemeanor. Maximum penalties for distribution of Spice would increase to a year in jail and a $10,000 fine. Maximum penalties for Spice use would increase to six months in jail and a $2,000 fine.

Municipal prosecutor Seneca Theno said Tuesday that the ordinance retains the $500 civil violation currently on the books, while adding criminal elements for use and sale.

When asked whether the ordinance could potentially lead to an increase of Anchorage homeless -- who have been disproportionately affected by the crisis -- spending time in jail for Spice use, Theno said, "I hope not."

That's not the intent of the ordinance, she said, but rather to have more tools at the city's disposal to stem the problem.

If the ordinance is approved, police won't necessarily arrest those who are found with the drug, Theno said -- an officer can issue a citation for a person to appear in court at a later date. Hypothetically, depending on the circumstances and a person's criminal record, someone who is initially charged with a misdemeanor may see that reduced to a civil fine later, Theno said.

Theno had said earlier this month that the city was exploring an increase in penalties for Spice sales and use, and noted the municipality was asking for help from the federal government.

"I think this is a good day for Anchorage," said Lisa Sauder, executive director of downtown soup kitchen Bean's Cafe, reacting to news of the ordinance

The current law lacks teeth, Sauder said, and she believes steeper penalties are part of the solution to deter those selling the drug.

"I think the next part of the equation really needs to be increased access to treatment," Sauder said.

Laurel Andrews

Laurel Andrews was a reporter for the Anchorage Daily News, Alaska Dispatch News and Alaska Dispatch. She left the ADN in October 2018.