(Photo: Jett Loe/Sun-News)
LAS CRUCES — A particularly dangerous batch of the illegal drug Spice is on the streets of Las Cruces. It is sending many to the emergency room and leaving others dead.
“We have, indeed, seen a significant increase in Spice-related emergency room visits,” said Anita Rockett, a spokesperson for Memorial Medical Center.
At MountainView Regional Medical Center, the story is the same.
“We’ve seen an increase in the last couple of days, to be sure. We have a baseline for Spice overdoses — in terms of what we ordinarily see. And the past several days has exceeded that,” said Dr. Michael Borunda, the hospital’s medical director of the emergency department.
American Medical Response, the ambulance company that serves Doña Ana County, stated that it had responded to 219 overdoses, though not specifically Spice overdoses, between Jan. 8 and Aug. 15 of this year — an average of one overdose per day. Between Aug. 16 and September 30, paramedics responded to 58 overdoses, an average of 1.26 per day.
“We have seen a series of spurts in Spice-related incidents since the beginning of summer,” said Las Cruces Police Department spokesman Dan Trujillo.
It's been described as a drug of convenience, or a last resort. Also, because of its affordability, availability and difficulty to test for, the drug is most popular among the homeless, military personnel, students and those on probation or parole.
What is Spice?
Spice is the street name that is broadly applied to a variety of synthetic cannabinoids. It is also sometimes called synthetic cannabis or synthetic marijuana, though its link to marijuana is tenuous. Spice and K2 are name brands that have become genericized and are often used to refer to synthetic cannabinoids more broadly.
Whereas marijuana typically produces a more relaxed high, users of Spice frequently become aggressive, violent and threatening. Others report becoming catatonic, blanking out and losing awareness (but not consciousness) for several hours.
“I’ve seen people who I’ve known for years who are suddenly violent and threatening, who had never been that way before,” said Pamela Angell, executive director of St. Luke’s Health Clinic, an indigent care provider. “As for the long-term effects, I’ve seen people who show a tremendous cognitive decline.”
Symptoms of overdose include increased agitation, muscle spasms, increased heart rate or decreased alertness. People using Spice can also experience general excitability, psychosis or suicidal thoughts. It can also lead to heart and kidney failure as well as diminished brain function, according to Borunda.
“Those are all the telltale signs that make us begin to suspect it may be Spice-related,” Borunda said. “But because it doesn’t show up in drug tests, we typically learn through conversations with the patient, or with family members.”
Hitting the homeless
The Sun-News filed a records request with the New Mexico Office of the Medical Investigator in an effort to document the number of recent deaths from Spice overdoses, but has not yet received a response.
However, those who work closely with the homeless community said that Spice usage has reached epidemic proportions.
“I’ll confirm it. There is a bad batch,” said Sue Campbell, lead case manager at Mesilla Valley Community of Hope, which provides services for the area's homeless and impoverished. “We’re having a hell of a time over here. We’ve got a guy over here who OD’d three times last week, and three times the week before. One puff, and he goes into seizures. He gets out of the hospital, then goes straight to the smoke shop and gets some more.”
While Spice is illegal, several sources said that it is widely available at local smoke shops — though it isn’t prominently displayed, and sometimes a code word is required.
“It’s incredible what’s happening. It’s out of control down here,” Campbell said. “This new batch is the topper — it’s the worst we’ve ever seen. And we’re scared. Now we have a group of people coming by in cars, and selling this stuff to them.”
Community of Hope case manager Sue Campbell describes to a reporter the problems caused by Spice at the center, which provides services for the homeless and impoverished. Community of Hope outreach coordinator Matt Mercer looks on. (Photo: Jett Loe/Sun-News)
Nicole Martinez, the organization’s executive director, said a bad batch of Spice is not uncommon.
“This isn’t the first time we’ve heard about bad batches — and we’ve seen how it has affected our clients,” Martinez said. “We’ve had a really hard time combating this. We have tried to get the word out; we have trainings on the dangers of Spice. Some of our clients are really proactive in spreading the word.”
“This year is the worst, in terms of overdosing,” said Matt Mercer, an outreach coordinator and case manager for Community of Hope. “Sometimes we’re seeing two or three a day. There will be a week when we’ll see eight in a row.”
James Sassak, a resident and organizer of Camp Hope, said the drug is strictly forbidden in the community's tent city, and that residents have been thrown out for using.
“I’d venture to say that we have absolutely no Spice in Camp Hope,” he said. “We just don’t allow it. The problems we’re seeing are among those on the edges of the community, who come into the area for various services.”
“About 5 years ago, we first became aware of Spice,” said a supervisor at a Las Cruces group home for youth. “The use by our clients is to avoid detection. When we would do room searches, we’d find it. At first, we didn’t know what it was.”
The supervisor said that Spice has changed dramatically in the last five years.
“In the early days of Spice, the kids were getting high, and that was it. Now kids are overdosing at an alarming rate. We’ve had four of our clients overdose in the past three months. That’s a huge percentage of our clientele,” he said. “Less than two weeks ago, one of our clients died of an overdose.”
A former case manager at the same facility said that Spice is not anyone’s drug of choice. It is a drug of convenience.
“When you’re in a group home, it’s usually court ordered. This is not their drug of choice. They use it because it’s not detectable,” he said. “There are tests that can detect it, but they’re much more expensive than traditional tests.”
The case manager said that the drug transformed his clients into someone unrecognizable.
“You can have a mild-mannered kid, and when they’re on this, they’re so confrontational and irritable,” he said. “It will ruin, literally ruin, a perfectly good teenager — their hopes, their dreams, mentally, physically. And kids at the group home were getting this stuff for as little as $2.”
All walks of life
Spice is not just a problem in the homeless community or among juvenile delinquents. The drug is also popular with professionals who face drug screening. For the same reason, it has seen a rise in popularity among military personnel.
Ruth Rivas of El Paso has become an outspoken critic of the drug since the 2012 death of her son, Adam Hernandez.
“Adam was a very intelligent, and was very accomplished,” Rivas recalled. “He graduated in the top 10 percent of his class, and was accepted into Naval Nuclear Power Training Command School. He was also a first responder, a fireman.”
On June 20, 2012, the Navy contacted Rivas.
“They sent two naval officers to tell me that Adam had died, and that NCIS was involved in the case, but they couldn’t tell me any more. My mind was going crazy,” Rivas said. “I soon learned that they found packets of Spice on his body and in his house, the coroner told me. I asked her, ‘How could such a caring person do this?’ She said, ‘Spice makes people do things that they would otherwise never do.’”
A veterans issue
David Boje is a professor in the management department in New Mexico State University’s College of Business. Through his volunteerism in the veteran community, he became aware of the drug.
While working with homeless veterans in Las Cruces, he realized that an epidemic was afoot.
“This stuff is more addictive than heroin — from what we’ve seen,” Boje said. “The danger is that all of it is untested by USDA or the FDA — you don’t know what you’re getting. They call it herbal incense and the package states that it’s not for human consumption, so it doesn’t have to be regulated.”
Boje said that, through his research, he has learned that 1 in 9 kids have tried Spice.
Boje is also an organizer and story researcher for Veterans Theater in Las Cruces. The group of local veterans, many of whom were at one time homeless, produce and perform plays about veterans issues. The group is currently rehearsing a play about the dangers of Spice. They will offer a free performance of the play, “Early Christmas,” on Dec. 2 at the Rio Grande Theatre.
He recently heard that a local smoke shop was selling Spice to customers who used a certain code word. With help from a friend, Boje recorded an undercover video of himself buying Spice, and posted it to YouTube to show how accessible the the drug is. For a large package, he paid $10.
“When you have high demand, huge product flow, and a totally unregulated product that people are abusing, you have a dangerous situation,” he said.
New Mexico State University management professor David Boje, also a veterans advocate, watches an "undercover" video he made showing him buying Spice at a Las Cruces smoke shop. (Photo: Jett Loe/Sun-News)
Hard to police
Many people who use Spice believe that it is legal — largely because it is so easy to buy.
“Spice is NOT legal,” Trujillo said. “But unfortunately, many of the people who are selling it constantly change the product name or the ingredients. Bath salts, Spice — all of those synthetic drugs — they’re incredibly hard to police.”
In 2011, the New Mexico state legislature passed SB 134, which adds synthetic cannabinoids to the list of hallucinogenic controlled substances under Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act.
“But it’s like other drugs,” Trujillo said. “It’s incredibly hard to identify who is selling it, who is using it, and who has it in their possession. There are many factors that make it hard to police.”
Third Judicial District Attorney Mark D’Antonio said that his office had not been informed about the latest rash of overdoses.
“That’s horrifically shocking,” D’Antonio said. “We need to do something. Spice is one of those drugs that no one has found a very good answer for, nationwide.”
D’Antonio said that he would like to work closely with local law enforcement agencies to better address the problem.
Damien Willis can be reached at 575-541-5468 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @damienwillis.