Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck said 15 people in downtown's skid row were hospitalized this weekend after consuming a tainted form of synthetic marijuana known as Spice.
Thankfully, Beck said, nobody died, even though most were rushed to the hospital after collapsing on the sidewalk and streets. The first incidents were reported Friday afternoon, he said.
Homeless advocates, shelter operators and police officers say the weekend’s episode isn’t the first time this year that ambulances have rolled up to homeless encampments and found poisoned spice users.
"They are cutting it with something lethal," said Rev. Andy Bales, who runs the Union Rescue Mission. "We've seen violence and convulsions.... I saw a guy rolling into the street on Friday."
Tainted batches of synthetic cannabinoids have popped up in recent years in numerous locales including New York and San Diego. Spice is made by spraying psychoactive chemicals onto plant matter and then smoking or eating it.
Side effects include racing heartbeat, nausea and sometimes seizures.
Bales said he took the photo of the main distributor at his tent on San Pedro Street. "The sales are like candy."
LAPD Officer Deon Joseph, a skid row veteran officer, said, "They change the chemical components to make it untraceable. It's five times stronger than marijuana, and cause two common signs of overdosing depending on the chemical components."
The signs, he said, were paralysis and vivid hallucinations.
"It's common to buy it in skid row for anywhere from 1 to 2 dollars for one joint," Joseph said.
In October, New York’s mayor signed a law banning the sale and manufacture of synthetic cannabinoid products like Spice and K2 and stimulants like “bath salts.”
In the same month, a crackdown by the Drug Enforcement Administration and Department of Homeland Security led to the arrest of 16 people in Los Angeles who were accused of distributing thousands of pounds of synthetic marijuana.
The DEA has identified 400 new designer drugs, mostly with origins in rogue labs in China. In the Los Angeles arrests, the dealers distributed their smokable products under such names as “Sexy Monkey,” "Crazy Monkey," “Mad Hatter” and "Scooby Snax.”
“These are extremely dangerous drugs, despite being falsely marketed to youth as being a ‘safe’ alternative and having innocent names like ‘spice’ and ‘K2,’" said U.S. Atty. Eileen M. Decker. "The often unknown and constantly changing chemicals in these drugs can have unpredictable and devastating effects on users."
Even for skid row, the rash of overdoses sparked anxiety. HazMat crews checked the area to make sure there was not a larger public safety threat Friday night, and some streets were closed.
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