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‘It’s literally poison:’ Spice, today’s bathtub gin

(AL.com) Bathtub gin used to make you go blind, because you just couldn’t know where it came from or where it was distilled.

The bathtub gin of today – Spice – is every bit as bootleg and every bit as dangerous.

Spice is whipped up in Chinese kitchens, shipped across the world in random dosages, sprayed on plants to make “synthetic marijuana” by people who don’t know what they are doing, and marketed to 12-year-olds (some packaging features references to the ‘Scooby Doo’ cartoon, for example).

According to police, hundreds of people in recent months have called emergency services with physical and psychological reactions to the drug.

“It’s literally poison,” said Clay Morris, the Assistant Special Agent in Charge for the Drug Enforcement Administration in Alabama.

State officials say 462 patients were seen from March 15 through April 20 at hospital emergency rooms throughout Alabama. Of those, 96 patients were hospitalized and two of them died.

The alarming numbers have prompted an intense federal and state investigation into why there has been such a dramatic increase and whether it’s linked to similar problems in neighboring states. “We’ve got to identify the source of the supply and remove that source,” Morris said. “That’s literally what we’re working on daily. It is very much a priority with DEA as we speak.”

In particular, investigators are working closely with authorities in Mississippi where more than 30 people were hospitalized in just one weekend. “We have several bad batches of spice in circulation in our state,” Morris said. “It’s just too potent. We’re conducting an investigation in both states to see if there are commonalities.”

Public health experts and law enforcement officials both statewide and nationwide have issued warnings in recent weeks about spice. Dr. Jim McVay, director of Health Promotion and Chronic Disease at the Alabama Department of Public Health, said the agency started active surveillance on spice-related illnesses on April 15. They have requested that all 90 hospitals across Alabama now try to track spice overdoses and report the numbers to ADPH once a week. The newest numbers should come in Thursday or Friday, he said.

Officials from several state agencies are planning to meet today at the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Montgomery to discuss concerns over heroin, prescription drug abuse and use of synthetic marijuana. Organizers say the group will include Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange, Secretary of Law Enforcement Spencer Collier and officials from the FBI, DEA and more.

Spice is a synthetic cannabinoid. The designer drug substances consist of dried plant material sprayed with synthetic cannabinoids and a mixture of other unknown chemicals including pesticides and rat poison

Spice is a synthetic cannabinoid. The designer drug substances consist of dried plant material sprayed with synthetic cannabinoids and a mixture of other unknown chemicals including pesticides and rat poison, McVay said. The chemicals stimulate brain areas affected by marijuana, and users sometimes opt for the marijuana alternative because they believe they are safe.

That couldn’t be farther from the truth. Users of the synthetic drug typically experience rapid heart rate, nausea, vomiting, agitation, confusion, lethargy, hallucinations, seizures, and kidney and respiratory problems.  The reason, McVay said, is simple. “Drug dealers are selling a tainted product,” he said.

Morris explained how easily that happens. The synthetic drug is manufactured in clandestine labs in China. Dealers buy the chemicals, dried leaves and packaging separately, and assemble it themselves. “You literally mix your powdered synthetic drug with acetone and then put it in a spray bottle, like the kind you get at Walmart,” he said. “They put the leaves out on a six-foot table and spray the chemical on them. So if they’re texting on their cell phone and spraying at the same time, they’re not paying attention at all. They could hold it over one part longer and put 10 to 20 times more of it in some places.

“The dosing isn’t uniform,” he said. “You never know what you’re going to get.”

Spice, also known as K2, is primarily marketed toward youth. “That’s what people don’t understand. They’re literally targeting 12- to 17-year-olds,” Morris said. “Just look at the packaging alone – Scooby, iPhones – all those things are marketed to children.”

Over the past six months in Alabama, the victims have ranged in age from 13 to 60, and most are males in their 20s and 30s.

Morris said spice is shipped kilos at a time from China through any number of mail services. “We’ve had several cases where New York is a good supplier for Alabama, and Atlanta,” Morris said.

We’ve had several cases where New York is a good supplier for Alabama, and Atlanta

So far, McVay said, a minority of the state’s 90 hospitals have seen spice-related illnesses. “It first came to light in Tuscaloosa, then Mobile and then Montgomery,” he said.

Overdoses on spice in Tuscaloosa County in recent weeks left one victim dead and two dozen others hospitalized. The leaders of the area’s public safety and law enforcement agencies held a joint press conference earlier this month to make the public aware of the problem, which Tuscaloosa’s Chief of Police Steven Anderson called “a public health crisis and a public safety crisis.”

Since about March 15 at least 250 people have been treated in Mobile County emergency rooms for serious health complications related to spice

Since about March 15 at least 250 people have been treated in Mobile Countyemergency rooms for serious health complications related to spice, McVay said. Law enforcement officials there say the selling of spice has evolved from the storefronts to the streets. “The differences we are seeing are that it is distributed more street-level, person-to-person than in previous years,” Mobile Police Department spokeswoman Ashley Rains said in a previous interview with AL.com. “Because of this, there is also information that the spice on the streets now is not the commercial grade imported from overseas but instead a homemade variety, made with any amount of household chemicals.”

Authorities in Montgomery County say more than three dozen people were recently treated in local hospitals for medical issues linked to the synthetic drug known as spice. Montgomery police and fire officials along with the county’s district attorney said during a meeting on Monday that 41 young people had gotten sick after using a synthetic form of marijuana known as spice, the Associated Press reported. Director of Public Safety Chris Murphy says local authorities are concerned because so many of the cases were reported between Thursday and Monday.

It’s even finding its way to state inmates. Two weeks ago, six inmates at Elba Community Work Center were transported and treated at an unspecified hospital this week possibly due to using spice. Alabama Department of Corrections spokesperson Bob Horton told AL.com two inmates at the Coffee County facility who appeared to be under the influence of an unknown substance were transported to an offside medical facility. Four others exhibiting similar symptoms were transported to a medical facility.

We’ve got to stop the distribution network to save our kids.

A couple weeks ago, four people overdosed in Fairfield within six hours and authorities suspect the drug of choice was spice. The victims, all four adult males, survived and were taken to local hospitals. Police Chief Leon Davis said an investigation is underway, but said it’s hard to confirm spice was behind the illnesses without toxicology test results.

Aside from the Fairfield incident, the Birmingham area has largely escaped the alarming numbers seen in other parts of the state. Law enforcement officials in Birmingham and surrounding cities said they rarely run into the drug or related illnesses. “You would think it would be evenly distributed but it isn’t,” McVay said. “Drug dealers have a limited geographic area.”

Alabama isn’t alone with the spice issue. At least two deaths in Hancock County in Mississippi two weeks ago are possibly linked to spice, and the state has had at least seven deaths possibly associated with the drug. “It’s hard to know for sure at this point,” said State Epidemiologist Dr. Thomas Dobbs. “I can’t speak to the two most recent but we’re looking at possibly seven associated deaths.”

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said earlier this month that more than 160 patients in nine days have been rushed to hospitals across the state for adverse reactions to spice.  In Virginia, there were 43 reported overdoses in Hagerstown since April 11, and 14 reported overdoses in the Northwestern region of Virginia since April 13.

In Texas, an autopsy concluded that synthetic marijuana was to blame for the death of a Fort Hood soldier shortly after his return from deployment to an Ebola hot zone in West Africa. And in Arizona, agents from the United States Drug Enforcement Administration seized 500 pounds of Spice, hydroponic marijuana, nearly $500,000 in cash, and arrested three people.

“This is something we have to get on immediately,” Morris said. “We’ve got to stop the distribution network to save our kids.”

By Carol Robinson

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