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Ten people hospitalized after possible drug overdoses on skid row

Tonya Edwards, a resident of the Brownstone Hotel at 5th and San Pedro streets in downtown Los Angeles, said she saw several people collapsing on the sidewalk and street Friday afternoon and called 911.

The number of victims grew rapidly through the evening, said a man who identified himself as Twin Skid Row and described watching the drama unfold from his second-floor window at the hotel.

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"They were passing out like dominoes," he said.

Several police, fire and ambulance crews responded to the scene and found multiple drug overdose victims. Witnesses told police that the victims were smoking Spice, a synthetic marijuana. The synthetic cannabinoids are made by spraying psychoactive chemicals onto plant matter, which can then be smoked or consumed.

Seven people were transported to local hospitals, police said. Three others were taken to hospitals Saturday morning from the same area. Authorities said all of the victims were expected to survive.

An LAPD officer was also treated and released at a hospital after an odor in the area caused him to become ill.

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.

The overdoses underscore the challenging conditions on skid row, which along with other parts of downtown Los Angeles has seen a notable increase in crime over the last year. Police and city officials have for years tried to crack down on the drug trade that has long flourished in the area, which is also home to many of L.A.'s largest homeless service centers.

Los Angeles County overall has seen an increase in the homeless population, and officials have been grappling with how to deal with the issue.

Medical tests will identify the exact substance that caused the reaction, but LAPD Officer Deon Joseph said it was probably Spice, a drug that has plagued downtown's homeless population in recent years and appears to becoming more common. He said Friday night's incident was not the first time this has happened and it won't be the last.

"To my knowledge it's a horrible substance called Spice or 'K2'. It is being sold out of the tents in the San Pedro and San Julian corridors and driving people completely out of their minds," Joseph said. "Especially those already struggling with mental illness ... the secondhand ingestion of it seems to be dangerous as well."

Edwards said Spice is sold openly in gold and purple packets around the intersection.

The Spice craze began about a year ago, but this was the first mass reaction, Edwards said. She speculated that a bad batch was the cause.

On Saturday afternoon, the use of spice continued openly in the skid row neighborhood. Men and women, young and old, rolled cigarettes and puffed clouds of smoke with an acrid smell distinct from marijuana.

"Dollar hit," one man said to anyone walking down the street.

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"I'm selling Spice," a woman blurted out to a friend who walked by.

Edwards said she detests the smell and scolded four men smoking rolled cigarettes on the sidewalk under her window.

"Could you please move," she said. "Thank you."

Some on the street referred to the substance as Spice, while others called it incense or pot pourri, the aromatic often sold in import stores and used to freshen rooms.

"It's legal because it's just a pot pourri," said Twin Skid Row. "You can't stop people from selling incense."

According to national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Spice use is on the rise nationally, leading to increased adverse reactions, including 15 deaths in the first five months of 2015.

Efforts to regulate the drug are complicated by the constant change in the chemical formula.

"They change the chemical components to make it untraceable," Joseph said. "It's five times stronger than marijuana, and can cause two common signs of overdosing depending on the chemical components. One is the appearance of paralysis or someone being in a catatonic state for hours. Or causing them to hallucinate and go berserk for long trips. It's common to buy it on skid row for anywhere from one to two dollars for one joint. And that one hit is pretty powerful."

doug.smith@latimes.com

richard.winton@latimes.com

stephen.ceasar@latimes.com 

Times staff writer Matt Stevens contributed to this story.

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