Illegal drug spice leads to a spike in emergency calls

Spice usage has taken ahold of the homeless community, due to the availability and cheap cost. Photo by Callie Kittredge/Arizona Sonoran News Service.
Spice usage has taken ahold of the homeless community, due to the availability and cheap cost. Photo by Callie Kittredge/Arizona Sonora News Service.

Spice and its increased, widespread availability in smoke shops has led to a rise in emergency calls in Arizona and around the nation.

Spice abuse is not just localized to Arizona; other states such as New York and Maryland have reported this as a national problem, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, and other municipalities struggle to combat the addictive effects of the drug.

Spice, better known by the street names “K2” or “Black Mamba,” was introduced as a synthetic substitute to marijuana. Spice consists of a blend of herbs sprayed with manmade chemicals.

Although the formula for spice varies from brand to brand, most are possible of inducing a long list of dangerous symptoms in users such as hallucinations, paranoia, seizures, vomiting, kidney failure, acute psychosis, tachycardia, stroke and in some cases death. Additionally, the effects of spice can be amplified or changed when taken with other substances.

Even though it is illegal to buy, sell and smoke spice, the false marketing makes it easy, labeling the drug as “incense” or “potpourri” and saying, “not for human consumption” on the bag, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

This allows smoke shops to sell this drug behind the counters for around $5 to $7 per bag and for better quality, around $20, says Erica Curry, spokeswoman for the Drug Enforcement Administration Phoenix division. And like most drugs on the black market, spice is easy to distribute and purchase online.

“In Arizona, we see that a lot of stuff is manufactured [locally] in Arizona, in a lab or warehouse,” Curry says. “These raw chemicals are being produced in China and imported [to the United States]. It’s not cumbersome to acquire the equipment.”

On a national level, law enforcement and special investigative units with the DEA work to identify where the raw chemicals are coming in from overseas. The DEA also works with the U.S. Postal Service and Department of Homeland Security, according to Curry.

“There are millions of packets [being imported], so it’s very difficult,” Curry says. “You almost have to have a lead or a tip to try and identify the location locally.”

In 2015, Arizona counties, with the exception of Maricopa County, have seen calls related to spice jump from just three in March to 48 in April alone, according to the Arizona Poison and Drug Information Center. As the potency of the drug increases and more variants become available to the market, with no regulation on its manufacture, trying to manage the almost epidemic-like nature of spice has become “like a big whack-a-mole contest,” says Keith Boesen, director of the Arizona Poison and Drug Information Center.

“The trick to the whole thing is that they can’t ban the sale of spice because then you couldn’t sell any incense anywhere,” Boesen says. “Once they figure out what the [effective psychoactive] chemical is, they add it to the DEA illegal list. Every year, the state adds to their list. The Arizona Board of Pharmacy keeps adding to their list every year.”

Because the primary psychoactive component in spice changes from brand to brand, the drug’s spread poses a challenge to those trying to fight it— by the time a primary chemical is recognized and banned, a number of other brands have taken its place, sometimes with far more harmful chemicals in their mixtures.

For those looking to get past the law, spice is the perfect drug. Spice doesn’t show up on drug tests, and many times, these doctors don’t know what chemicals they’re testing for, Boesen says.

The demographic for spice users is even more puzzling than its contents. In Arizona, the average age of users lies somewhere in the range of 30 to 40 years old and young people, like high schoolers, according to Boesen.

“[It’s] popular among the kids and easy to get at head shops,” says Sarah Cutting, the clinical nurse educator at Tucson Medical Center. “We see a couple of cases a month on both the pediatrics and adult’s side. Honestly, there’s more cases that we don’t know about. You have to draw blood to figure out.”

As spice is highly synthetic in nature, it does not fall into a simple narcotic category like marijuana, which differs in its effects from strain to strain. Because there is no regulation on the manufacture of spice, users can, unknowingly at the time of purchase, experience a high that ranges from something vaguely resembling marijuana (as was its original use), to a fully psychoactive experience, even mimicking LSD, bath salts or methamphetamine.

“The unknowing abuse of a drug is incredibly scary,” Boesen says. “These chemicals are [being] given to a human being for the first time ever. That human being is an experiment. From the healthcare side, that’s really scary. The general public doesn’t know that.”

The Pima County Health Department is trying to bring all the stakeholders together, such as the Tucson Police and Fire Department, the Arizona Board of Pharmacy and the Arizona Poison and Drug Control, to figure out what to do about the increasing problem.

If the supply can’t be stopped, then the next step is to affect the demand. Boesen and Curry agree that education and community awareness is the answer.

“It’s not legal in any sense — it’s always been illegal despite what it says on the packet,” Curry says. “The intent and purpose of the chemicals make it illegal. We try to inform the public of that.”

As for now, the Arizona Department of Health and the poison and drug network around the country continues to monitor these new chemicals and add them to the illegal compound list.

“What we saw is the product that was out there being sold a lot changed chemical structure, and now everyone is getting sick,” Boesen says. “Brilliant chemists doing brilliant things for all the wrong reasons.”

Callie Kittredge is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact her at

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