Anchorage Spice ordinance takes aim at dealers, distributors

The Anchorage Assembly passed a measure giving law enforcement more options to combat the synthetic drug spice. First responders and public officials have called the months-long outbreak “unsustainable,” but few believe the new ordinance is a silver bullet for the city’s woes.

Listen now:

For all the attention it gets, though, there is little agreement about  some of the most concrete details regarding Spice in Anchorage. Basic questions like where its coming from, how to classify it legally, and the health impacts are still being figured out.

The two things everyone does agree on are that Spice is a problem, and that something needs to be done.

Mayor Ethan Berkowitz poses with students after a unanimous vote to restore the Youth Commission during the same Assembly meeting that saw passage of a revised Spice ordinance. (Photo: Zachariah Hughes, KSKA)
Mayor Ethan Berkowitz poses with students after a unanimous vote to restore the Youth Commission during the same Assembly meeting that saw passage of a revised Spice ordinance. (Photo: Zachariah Hughes, KSKA)

“My son had passed away from Spice,” said Lynette Marino Hinz, who testified about the drug’s personal toll wearing a Batman shirt to commemorate her late son, who loved the nocturnal crime fighter.

“I think its a step in the right direction,” Hinz said of the ordinance after it passed. “If you don’t do anything then it just continues, so I think this is moving us closer to a better solution.”

Anchorage already had a measure to combat Spice, passed in 2014 to stop over-the-counter sales. This new one updates the legal mechanisms for charging and prosecuting it, charging a $500 ticket for misbranding synthetic drugs, and attaching a misdemeanor charge to manufacture, distribution, and possession.

Police officers will have discretion in terms of charging, but the real point is building larger cases rather than just going after street-level users.

“The goal in this–bottom line–is to find out, identify those individual who are distributing and-or manufacturing,” said Police Chief Chris Tolley, “and putting a stop at the source.”

There is a whole set of problems related to Spice because of all the unknowns surrounding it. As Municipal Prosecutor Seneca Theno told the Assembly, right now there’s not much known about the supply route, for example, beyond suspicions that the drug is being ordered online and shipped to Anchorage through the mail. Theno helped draft the ordinance, and believes it gives law enforcement tools to build up exactly that kind of information.

“We have a lot of rumors,” Theno said during questions from the Assembly, “but the police department in conjunction with the Feds have not been able to fully develop good investigation into where this is coming from.”

But nobody thinks this ordinance is the main solution for Anchorage’s Spice problem. The critiques and recommendations are all over the place: Some say it’s a miniature financial crisis for the city’s Emergency response system. Others say the real cost is the human suffering embedded within mental health and addiction issues on the street. Assembly Member Amy Demboski supported the measure, but said she and other tax-payers are tired of footing the bill without enough accountability being required. She faults a lack of responsibility among users, and from Beans Cafe and the Brother Francis Shelter in the area where the majority of Emergency calls come from.

“We would not tolerate this from a bar owner who was dealing heroin in their parking-lot,” Demboski said during Assembly comments. “Why the heck are we giving them a pass? It’s not acceptable.”

Testimony was overwhelmingly in favor of the measure, and Assembly comments were supportive ahead of a unanimous yes vote.

But amid the agreement a tentative note of caution came from Catherine Muntean, who works at a downtown cafe. Muntean told the Assembly that she’s recently become close with a number of first responders because they’re coming to the cafe for spice-related calls so regularly.

“I am really tired of dealing with Spice, because it is a daily thing,” Muntean said. “Thank you for this start.”

The misdemeanor A charge attached to selling Spice carries up to a $10,000 fine or as much as a year in jail.

Only state law can set felony offenses.