Spice emergency calls in Anchorage rise to new high in October

October was the busiest month yet for Anchorage medics responding to health emergencies suspected to be caused by Spice. Meanwhile, the state health department is wrapping up its preliminary investigation into the epidemic.

About 22 percent of all emergency medical transports in October were due to suspected Spice use -- the unofficial tally from Oct. 1 to Oct. 30 is 408 out of 1,892 total transports -- according to data provided by Anchorage Fire Department emergency medical service operations assistant chief Erich Scheunemann.

City officials are trying to figure out how to address the crisis, including a possible new law that would make the sale and possession a crime.

For medics, the increased calls mean "more stress, because they're just that much more (busy)," Scheunemann said. "On the really busy days they're just going and going."

Despite the use of resources, Scheunemann wasn't aware of any delays in treating other medical emergency calls due to increased Spice transports.

Spice is a synthetic drug that is typically made by spraying psychotropic compounds onto plants. It's cheap and difficult to regulate, because manufacturers will often switch ingredients as soon as a particular chemical compound is banned.

Emergency responders can't test for Spice, so a "suspected" case is noted if the responding paramedic sees empty Spice packets, if the person or bystanders say they smoked it, or if they present specific signs and symptoms of Spice use, Scheunemann said. Symptoms can manifest as both sedation and aggression.

Meanwhile, the state Department of Health and Social Services is finishing a preliminary investigation looking at the nature, scope and cause of the problem, according to epidemiologist Michael Cooper.

So far, results show that hospital patients who are suspected of using Spice from mid-July through September were overwhelmingly male -- over 80 percent -- and the average age was in the mid-30s.

One major question the department is trying to answer, given that Spice has been around for years, is why there has been a marked increase in calls recently, Cooper said.

The department has been sending Spice samples to a lab that tests specifically for a wide range of synthetic cannabinoids, the component in Spice that gets people high.

"Some of the products that we've found ... are kind of the stronger Spice," Cooper said.

So far, seven or eight different synthetic cannabinoids have been identified from Spice taken from Anchorage streets, according to Cooper.

Synthetic cannabinoids are "nothing at all like natural marijuana," but they act on the same receptors in the brain, Cooper said.

Researchers "see how strongly (synthetic cannabinoids) bind to those receptors" and then compare that to THC, the main cannabinoid in marijuana. Using this comparison method, one synthetic cannabinoid taken from Spice found on the streets of Anchorage was 30 to 40 times more potent than THC, Cooper said.

Cooper said if this high-potency Spice was new to Anchorage, it could be one reason behind the increase in people being sent to the hospital in recent months.

In some cases, three different synthetic cannabinoids were found in one sample, which Cooper said speaks to the drug's unpredictability. People buying Spice have "no clue what they're about to smoke," Cooper said.

Liquid Spice -- which can be used in a vape pen -- was also given to the department by Anchorage police, Cooper said. The potent liquid form "makes it really dangerous," Cooper said.

The final results of the investigation will be available in the next week or so, Cooper 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.