ANCHORAGE — Andre Boyd, a monitor at the nonprofit Bean’s Cafe, said he always calls 911 if he sees someone’s eyes roll back into their head.
“The people who walk away, they’re the lucky ones,” executive director Lisa Sauder told the Alaska Dispatch News as she and Boyd watched paramedics treat two men they said smoked the synthetic drug Spice outside their cafe.
Anchorage emergency workers say they have noticed a dramatic spike in the number of medical emergencies related to Spice since mid-summer, and the problem has become so widespread that the city is asking for help from federal authorities.
“Anecdotally, we see much more Spice now than meth and heroin combined,” said Erich Scheunemann, assistant chief of emergency medical service operations at the Anchorage Fire Department.
Suspected Spice use accounted for 10 percent of all the department’s emergency transports between July 18 and Sept. 27, and three-quarters of the calls came from downtown, according to data provided by Scheunemann.
In the emergency room, the number of Spice emergencies varies day to day — from a slow trickle of cases to deluge of patients the next day, according to Alaska regional Hospital ER physician and chief medical officer David Cadogan.
“It’s been a long time since I’ve seen anything like this,” he said. “One evening we had, I think, six patients within an hour.”
Symptoms of spice use can fall across a spectrum, Cadogan explained. Patients might arrive heavily sedated and unresponsive or they could show up combative and agitated.
He said the homeless population has been disproportionately affected by Spice — something Boyd, the Bean’s Cafe worker, attributed to cost. Boyd said the drug sells for only $5 to $10 per cigarette-like “stick.”
Saunder, the Bean’s director, called the situation “heartbreaking” and said it’s diverting funds from other programs. She wants to see more detox and treatment options for people using Spice and “some teeth to the law.”
But police say they have little power to stem the sale and use of the drug.
Possessing and selling the drug is not a crime, only a civil violation punishable by a $500 fine. It’s difficult to outlaw because the chemical compounds in the drug can be easily changed to create new, legal varieties.
“It’s enough of a public safety issue that we are diverting patrol services,” said acting deputy chief of police Gary Gilliam. He said the department has reassigned two officers to work with undercover detectives on the Spice issue.
The city is considering strengthening the law, possibly by making sale and use of Spice a crime rather than a ticketed offense. City prosecutor Seneca Theno said other states have found a way create laws that cover a broad spectrum of synthetic drugs.
She said the city also reached out to the U.S. attorney’s office in late August and thinks the federal government might have more power to go after Spice. But it’s not clear yet if federal agencies will intervene.
Anchorage Mayor Ethan Berkowitz has also proposed a budget increase for police and fire departments and hired a homeless coordinator, Nancy Burke.
The state Department of Health and Social Services is analyzing the problem, but had little new information on its investigation since asked in mid-August.