On Sunday afternoon demonstrators bearing signs with slogans such as “morals before money” and “no poison for profit” will gather in front of Tobacco Distress, a Sterling smoke shop from which demonstration organizer Jessica Burch claims she bought spice during her years as an addict of the drug.
“I smoked marijuana,” Burch said, explaining how she began using spice, a drug often marketed as a synthetic form of marijuana. “When I was bartending, someone came in — when Tobacco Distress was Tobacco Express, years ago — and said they saw this stuff, it’s marijuana but it’s legal, it’s a synthetic. So I tried it and I thought ‘it’s legal, it’s in the store, it’s cheaper.’ So I went with that. … It’s just that it was convenient.”
“Synthetic marijuana” does not necessarily produce the same high as its namesake. According to an information sheet by the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services, the variety of chemicals found in spice bond to the same neurotransmitter receptors as marijuana’s active ingredient tetrahydrocannabinol, but attach to those receptors more strongly than the natural molecule, with unpredictable results.
“It starts off kind of like marijuana, when you take the first hit,” Burch said. “But one or two hits, and you feel like you smoked a whole joint to yourself. It’s a lot more potent.” She described feeling “nauseous, like I was going to throw up. Sweaty, my face numb to touch. No taste buds. I didn’t want to eat, couldn’t sleep.”
Effects of the drug listed by DHSS include tremors and agitation, anxiety, vomiting, suicidal thoughts, confusion, hallucinations, psychotic episodes, and withdrawal symptoms among regular users. Burch said that in her experience spice is quickly addicting and the withdrawal was very unpleasant.
“It became me smoking it not because I wanted the same feeling as marijuana, but to keep from getting sick,” Burch said. “Pretty much so I wouldn’t feel like I was dying, was why I kept smoking it.”
Burch said that throughout her addiction, she bought spice from Tobacco Distress for around $10 a gram. Burch’s claim that the store sells spice hasn’t been verified by law enforcement, although Alaska State Trooper public information officer Megan Peters said the allegations were being investigated.
Phone messages left for the owner of Tobacco Distress on Friday and Saturday were not returned.
Clinician Ashley Bell of Serenity House, Central Peninsula Hospital’s addiction treatment center, said 15 percent of the patients entering Serenity House since 2010 had listed spice as one of their top drugs of choice. Bell that spice use is self-reported, and the number of users may actually be higher. According to Bell, Serenity House sees about 120 patients a year in its residential treatment.
Bell said many users follow the same path Burch did: thinking of spice as a safer, legal, easier-to-get alternative to marijuana.
“A lot of people want the marijuana-like sedative effects,” Bell said. “Sometimes it can give it to you. Other times it can cause hallucinations. It can cause so many different things.”
The fact that the chemicals in spice are not searched for by many drug tests is an another appeal, Bell said, adding that this reason is often cited by users who work on the North Slope or on oil rigs. Testing for spice is more expensive and time-consuming than testing for more conventional drugs.
Spice’s legal status is complicated. A 2012 federal law banned some ingredients of spice, but it continues to be sold in new varieties that may not include the banned substances. In 2014 the Alaska Legislature attempted to control the product with a $500 fine for selling “illicit synthetic drugs,” which became effective October of that year. However, the exact consequences of selling spice depend on its specific contents, which can be variable.
“The stuff itself looks like plant matter,” Burch said. “It’s green, really dry and flaky. Sometimes you find rocks in it, sticks. It’s just plant matter sprayed with chemicals.”
Those chemicals are two classes of artificial compounds called synthetic cannabanoids and synthetic cathinones. According to ADHSS, over 100 varieties of synthetic cannabinoid have been created. In the manufacture of spice, one or more of these are soaked into generic plant material to make a smokable product.
Peters contrasted spice with drugs based on naturally-ocurring substances.
“Heroin, for example,” Peters said. “We know what the substance is for heroin. … Heroin’s based on a natural substance, an opiate from poppies. Marijuana. You know what marijuana is. There’s a chemical compound that’s immediately identifiable.”
Because spice cannot be identified by a single chemical, legally defining it is harder — a fact complicated by spice producers’ efforts to evade definition. According to the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, 26 synthetic chemicals are listed as Schedule 1 controlled substances. However, according to the same source, 158 new synthetic substances were found in spice during 2012 alone.
“If we make one component of it illegal, they just remove that component and put something else in,” Peters said of spice. “How do you make all of it illegal when they keep changing the chemical compound? … You might still find some (spice batches) that have those illegal compounds in them, but it’s a long process of finding the product, sending it off to a lab, seeing what the test determines is in there.”
If a batch of spice contains no illegal compound, law enforcers can’t take action beyond imposing the $500 fine. The offense is legally classified as an infraction.
“It’s like a speeding ticket,” said Peters, giving another example of an infraction.
For the purposes of the fine, spice is defined not by its chemical content but by its packaging. Spice is often sold in foil packages under hundreds of brand names. The drugs within are “illicit” if their packaging does not identify the substance within, suggesting that it “is a controlled substance or has the effect of a controlled substance,” or that “the user will achieve euphoria, a hallucination, mood enhancement, relaxation, stimulation, or another effect on the body,” among other conditions.
Burch said she quit using spice “about a month before it became illegal” after making a pact to quit with some friends, and that she’s been clean for about a year. She is now studying chemical dependency counselling at Kenai Peninsula College. Burch said that Tobacco Distress continued to sell spice after the October 2014 fine was imposed. After discovering this, she said she contacted law enforcement.
“I called the troopers and they said … the law was so new that they needed to all learn it,” Burch said. “They didn’t want to arrest somebody on it and then get it thrown out because they didn’t follow procedure.”
Burch decided then to hold a demonstration at the store, but said she ultimately didn’t because of pressure from social media users.
“I was going to do this about a year ago,” Burch said of the demonstration. “I backed off because I was getting a lot of heat from it. … Some people didn’t want me to protest. I got told I was going to get run over. So I backed off.”
Burch said she believed the threat, made online, came from a user concerned that the supply of spice would be threatened.
“Honestly, if it’s out of the stores, there are a lot of people that are going to be sick because they can’t have it,” Burch said. “Those people are going to be scared. I was, when I heard there was going to be a ban. When I went to the store and they said they didn’t get their shipment, I knew I could look forward to being sick all day. People are scared of that.”
Burch returned to her demonstration plans after reading about a similar demonstration by former spice addicts in Texas. When she shared the story with a drug awareness Facebook group, members encouraged her own protest.
“Next thing I know, I had people posting ‘I’ll go with you.’ So it just grew from there,” Burch said, adding that she had received very little negative reaction this time around.
Ravin Swan, owner of the print shop Gammas Designs, created signs for the demonstration reading “spice destroys families” and donated material for demonstrators to use in making their own signs. State Sen. Peter Micciche (R-Soldotna), one of the eight sponsors of the bill that created the spice-selling fine, gave signs from his previous election campaigns for demonstrators to re-use as placards.
The demonstration will begin at 1:00 p.m. Sunday, in Sterling. When asked what result she hopes to achieve by marching outside Tobacco Distress, Burch said she wants to “bring awareness that (spice) is still out there, it’s causing a problem in our community.”
“We plan to be respectful, so they might be respectful back, not yell profanity or anything,” Burch said. “And hopefully they’ll talk to us afterwards. We’ll see what they have to say, if anything.”
Reach Ben Boettger at firstname.lastname@example.org.