Santa Monica Observer - Community, Diversity, Sustainability and other Overused Words

Synthetic Drug Spice Sickens Yet More Skid Row Transients

Local paramedics tired of running transients to the hospital three times this week


August 23, 2016

Homeless people near a 7/11

18 skid row residents required medical treatment from paramedics called to 429 E. Fifth St. in downtown Los Angeles late this morning. The call to rescue homeless folks came at about 10:30 a.m., said the Los Angeles Fire Department.

A similar mass sickness of transients occurred just a few blocks away on Friday, when 18 people were also treated. Fourteen people were transported to hospitals in Monday's incident.

"Obviously, there's a particularly potent batch of some illicit drugs that presumably people here are using," said Dr. Marc Eckstein, the department's medical director. He was the on scene commander ("OSC"). "It's obviously becoming a public health crisis." The patients treated Monday "appear to have similar signs and symptoms" to those treated on Friday, Eckstein said.

In that incident, the "presumed overdose" was attributed to "spice," another name for a synthetic marijuana that has highly variable potency and effects, according to Eckstein, who is also a professor of emergency medicine at USC's medical school.

"Patients have altered mental status. Some are combative and some have seizures," Eckstein said.

There is controversy about calling this substance Spice or K2 or synthetic marijuana. "Synthetic marijuana" is a misnomer according to Dr. Lewis Nelson, a medical toxicologist at the NYU School of Medicine who states they are "really quite different, and the effects are much more unpredictable. It's dangerous".

Since the term synthetic does not apply to the plant but rather to the chemical that the plant contains (tetrahydrocannabinol), the term synthetic cannabinoid is more appropriate.

Research on the safety of synthetic cannabinoids is now becoming available. Initial studies are focused on the role of synthetic cannabinoids in psychosis. Synthetic cannabinoids may precipitate psychosis and in some cases it may be prolonged.

Some studies suggest that synthetic cannabinoid intoxication is associated with acute psychosis, worsening of previously stable psychotic disorders, and it may trigger a chronic (long-term) psychotic disorder among vulnerable individuals such as those with a family history of mental illness. Synthetic cannabis is stated to be more toxic to the brain and more addictive than regular cannabis.

Underlying medical conditions and summer heat can combine with the drug's effects to create an emergency situation, he said.

In similar incidents that have occurred over the course of summer, patients who used spice were combative and "wandering" or "staggering through traffic," he said.

A homeless man near the statute of St. Monica, at the west end of Wilshire Blvd in Santa Monica

The use of spice seems to be extremely prevalent in the homeless population of Skid Row, he said.

"This is creating a significant impact on the Fire Department and EMS resources in the downtown area," Eckstein said. "These are impacting the community hospitals as well."

Eckstein said the emergency response was expected to continue as abuse of spice grows.

"Patients' lives are in danger," he said. "This is a dangerous drug. People will smoke this drug at their own peril, serious risk of significant injury or death."

A woman who works at a community health clinic near Monday's LAFD response said spice sells for $1 per joint. Clients can use the drug and not test "dirty" while in drug treatment, the woman told KTLA, saying she'd seen the use of spice over the last couple of years.


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