Hospitalizations from Spice on the rise, many cases near Bean’s Cafe

Spice is commercially sold in different packaging, typically as a loose packet of herbs treated with chemicals. (Courtesy photo - US Marine Corps)
Spice is commercially sold in different packaging, typically as a loose packet of herbs treated with chemicals. (Courtesy photo – US Marine Corps)

Thirty-two people have been hospitalized in the past week because of Spice, a street drug that’s a mixture of dried herbs sprayed with chemicals. Many of the victims were smoking the drug near Bean’s Cafe in downtown Anchorage on Wednesday. It’s unclear if Spice is linked to the seven deaths in the homeless community in the past month.

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The executive director of Bean’s Cafe Lisa Sauder describes the scene near the soup kitchen on Wednesday as a “war zone.” Bean’s Cafe staff walked the campus, checking on anyone who was lying down. Some were just lounging in the sun, but others were unconscious.

“And what would typically happen is that there’d be maybe two, three, four people would be smoking it together, and they would all succumb to symptoms at the same time. So you would have three or four people and you would say, everything’s okay, everything seems stable, then you’d have three or four people down again.”

Police and paramedics responded. Sauder said one of her staff members pried a rolled up cigarette made with the synthetic drug out of the hand of one of the clients as she was being loaded into the ambulance. She says her staff is seeing an increase in the number of people transported for seizures and cardiac arrests — both side effects of the illegal drug. According to an APD press release, it’s possible other chemicals and “hemlock-like” plants are being added to the drug locally. The Anchorage Police Department is looking for the source of the drug. Selling and possessing Spice in Anchorage is illegal.

The health problems from Spice usage are not definitively linked to the seven members of the homeless community who have died in the past three weeks. The Anchorage Police Department says toxicology results usually take about eight weeks. Bean’s Cafe has hosted two different memorial events to help the grieving community.

During the first of the events, Mark Roy Ahvakana listened to his brother drum while others sang. He said the deaths were a wake up call.

“And reading it in the newspaper, it opened up my eyes, too. It kind of scared me. Makes me want to stop trying to drink so much and doing drugs, you know,” he said. Try to sober up, try to find work, and get a place to live in.”

Connecting clients with the limited number of resources isn’t always easy. “The problem is now, if someone walks into our client services office and says ‘That’s it, I’m done with drugs. I want to go into detox. I want to go into rehab.’ We go, ‘Great, maybe we can get you into a bed in October,'” said Sauder. “We’ve got to be utilizing the few scant resources we have while we try to bring more online.”

One temporary solution is a simple real-time updated document shared by local service providers showing all available detox, rehab, and housing possibilities. Sauder said it will help make sure all resources are put into use as quickly as possible, but ensuring that everyone is safe will require the whole community.

“If you see someone on the sidewalk, passed out, you don’t need to approach them but call. Call 9-1-1 and have somebody check on them. One of the clients that was found had been on the street for probably 10 to 12 hours. That’s unacceptable. It’s unacceptable that we’ve become so accustomed to people being passed out on the sidewalk that for 10 hours, no one called.”