Lead Story Local News West Edition

A GROWING THREAT: Synthetic marijuana is the latest drug trend on Skid Row

LOS ANGELES — Talk shows and news outlets regularly report on “the opioid crisis ravaging the U.S.” and the “record level of deadly overdoses.”

In Los Angeles County alone, 400 deaths involving prescription opioids occurred between 2006 and 2013, according to the county Public Health Department.

But street sources familiar with drug trends here argue that synthetic marijuana — also known as spice, K2 and by dozens of other street names — is emerging as more of a lethal threat than opioids.

First of two parts

In some circles, synthetic marijuana is perceived as a legal alternative to marijuana, which is the most commonly used illicit drug in the U.S., California and the county,” according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health.

Are Angelenos in significant numbers turning to herbal incenses and potpourris sprayed with chemicals to provide a similar effect to marijuana?

Reports from the National Forensic Laboratory Information System (NFLIS) on drug seizures in the county in 2014 suggest the answer is no.

Of 34,743 drug reports for items seized, only 86 or less than 1 percent were for synthetic cannibinoids.

Drug reports for methamphetamines ranked number one, with cannabis (marijuana) in the number two spot. How reliable is the information gleaned from the streets regarding illicit drug use in the county?

The Wave reached out to a handful of additional street sources to get a snapshot of their perceptions and knowledge of what’s happening in the county.

Leimert Park resident Tyrone Augustine said, “The past 30 years, I’ve seen different stuff happening … from crack cocaine to spice. Opioids like the ones [implicated] in Prince’s death are not happening around here. I don’t see that.  What I see … is crystal methamphetamines and spice/K2. Spice is a very serious epidemic. Some workers downtown take spice at lunch because it helps them pass [standard] drug tests.”

Skid Row resident and methamphetamine and spice user Antonio Scavone called spice “addictive, unpredictable, and more powerful than marijuana.

“One spice cigarette compares to three high-powered weed cigarettes,” he said. “I would say 80 percent of the youth 30 years-of-age and under on Skid Row are hooked on it.”

“Weed is kind of obsolete now,” the 48-year-old former drug-runner and crack cocaine addict added. “I wouldn’t call it a gateway drug anymore. It’s not something that gets you at onset … and then you slowly progress to another drug.”

“Basically, we are all garbage cans,” KevinMichael Key, a 20-year Skid Row resident said. “Anything that is going to get you out of your discomfort zone, you are going to use. When I got here, I smoked up a law license, but have been sober for almost 14 years. Skid Row is the ‘world’s largest recovery community,’ but with “legal and illegal drugs.

“There are prescription drugs and pockets where you see people peddling them,” he added. “There’s cocaine, heroin … and methamphetamines. You got medical marijuana, crack cocaine — still — and spice. If you look … you’ll see people rolling spice.”

Homeless people lie and sit on the sidewalk along Skid Row where spice (synthetic marijuana) has become a problem, causing six overdoses one weekend in April. (Photo courtesy of Fifth Avenue Times)
Homeless people lie and sit on the sidewalk along Skid Row where spice (synthetic marijuana) has become a problem, causing six overdoses one weekend in April.
(Photo courtesy of Fifth Avenue Times)

Synthetic marijuana users and non-users expressed uncertainty regarding the legal status of the fake marijuana sold in gas stations, convenience stores, smoke shops and via the Internet.

Key, who works for the United Coalition East addressing alcohol and other substance abuse issues, said he thought spice manufacturers “stay one step ahead by changing the chemicals so the drug is no longer illegal,” but “the police don’t believe they have the authority to arrest folks for spice. And for such a low level crime, they feel it is a waste of their time.”

Augustine, a non-user said, “The police … know about spice, but are not doing anything about it. I see people put in jail for … having weed, but not for selling or having spice. That’s the stuff that’s hurting and killing people.”

In late April, more than a dozen Skid Row residents were poisoned by synthetic marijuana. No one died, but the National Institute on Drug Abuse says “use of [synthetic marijuana] is associated with a rising number of deaths.”

During that incident, Skid Row resident Anthony Taylor, “walked out of [my] apartment and saw four men unconscious in front [of the building.] Two were lying halfway in the street. Two more across the street had overdosed.

“Outside is ground zero for Spice,” he added. “A cigarette costs about $1 and is readily available … in this community which has multiple resources to help any and everybody who is willing to receive the help.

”The Drug Enforcement Administration reports some synthetic marijuana substances “are not controlled substances,” but the agency has investigated and brought successful cases … using the Controlled Substance Analogue Enforcement Act.

The DEA also reports the ill effects of using fake marijuana include rapid heart rate, vomiting, violent behavior, suicidal thoughts, elevated blood pressure, kidney damage, reduced blood supply to the heart and seizures.  YouTube is stocked with footage of individuals purportedly under the influence of spice and the resulting chaos and stupor.

Scavone  said, “I smoke half a spice joint … pass out or go into a daydream where I am incoherent and lose memory of what I have just been doing. … It is like the onset of dementia or something.”

Next week: Part II will pursue the numbers behind illicit drugs, the truth they tell, and how the medical, law enforcement and educational communities may be adapting to the changes.