David Brooks remembers seeing a man taking four steps forward and four steps back, over and over, in front of his substance-abuse center the day it opened in downtown Frederick.
Brooks approached the man to ask what happened to him
“He said, ‘All I remember is, I had weed and somebody had some spice and they mixed it in a blunt,’” Brooks recalled the man saying. “Then he goes, ‘I just don’t remember anything else.’”
The clinical director of the behavioral health center said he sat with the man for a while. The man couldn’t say what his name was, where he lived or where he was going. As Brooks put it, “His brain was disconnected from his thoughts.”
Overdoses on synthetic cannabinoids, also known as spice or K2, have fluctuated in frequency in the city of Frederick since 2012. In March, police say an especially dangerous iteration of the chemical compound caused a spike in overdoses. Officers were responding to the same people overdosing on the addictive substance multiple times a day, with the department responding to between 10 and 12 overdoses a day. In an effort to reduce overdoses, the Frederick Police Department recently adopted a new policy for the way it deals with people frequently overdosing on the drug.
Beginning in March, the department started taking people in possession of spice to the Frederick County Adult Detention Center for booking — instead of just issung a criminal citation — if officers know that a person has been charged with possession within 30 days, and it’s likely they won’t comply with a lawful order.
If the person is taken into custody to be processed on the misdemeanor possession charge, they are taken to a booking unit separate from the jail, said Frederick police Sgt. Tracey Wiles, who spearheaded the new policy. The suspected offenders may or may not be placed in a holding cell while being processed, the sergeant said, before the commissioner sets bail.
Since the new policy was implemented, Wiles said there’s been a decrease in overdoses and possession citations in recent months. She said that’s probably due to a number of factors, but it may be due in part to the policy change.
“People under the influence of synthetic cannabis are posing a threat to public safety,” Wiles said. “They can be violent or go into [a] zombie state and fall into the street.”
Wiles said frequent calls to service for spice overdoses is a drain on first responders’ resources.
“Just issuing a citation ... won’t stop the behavior,” Wiles said.
History of synthetic cannabinoids
Consumption of synthetic cannabis began in early 2000, particularly among people serving in the military who wanted to take substances without testing positive for drug use in regular screenings, Brooks said.
“When [spice] started out, it was like a weed high,” he said. “The chemical components of it really did mimic the molecular structure of marijuana. It gave you the same effect, the same feeling [as smoking marijuana].”
As military personnel returned home from service, some brought the drug back with them. Brooks said it was still not a commonly known drug in the larger community at that point.
“But then, people on probation started to figure this out,” Brooks said. “Then, that’s when it started getting out into society as this drug that people are using that will beat drug tests.”
Once spice caught on, the government started banning it. But lawmakers couldn’t place a blanket ban on all spice-like substances, Brooks said. Specific compounds must be detailed in legislation.
“The companies that were in different parts of the world [making spice] would get this information and quickly switch out [the chemical compound that was banned],” Brooks said.
The chemical makeup of spice changed so rapidly that the compounds used now look nothing like those found in marijuana, Brooks said.
“Now, it’s gotten to the point that some of my clients that I see get kind of a euphoric feel, like they nod off,” he said. “Some people have an upper feel, like they got something like PCP.”
Originally, users would typically buy spice at smoke shops. But the drug has become more widely available on the internet.
Concentrated liquids and sprays containing spice can be bought online and sprayed on substances to be smoked. The liquid can also be vaporized, which leaves no odor.
Brooks said many downtown users are now buying substances from dealers who spray spice on bases such as parsley and other leafy plants, and sometimes marijuana.
“That’s the problem with it,” Brooks said. “When you take a whole batch, and you spray something on it and you shake it up, some parts are going to get more than the other parts.”
Brooks said some of his clients have unknowingly encountered the powerful fentanyl sprayed on spice and marijuana. He said dealers spray synthetics on marijuana because it “gets people higher.”
“The problem is that most people don’t know that they’re getting it and they use it like it doesn’t have that substance on it and it just knocks them out,” he said.
Wiles said the department has recently seized spice packaged like commercial potpourri and some in clear plastic bags that dealers often use to distribute marijuana. She said the department hasn’t yet seized any liquid spice spray.
Legality of spice
In 2012, the city of Frederick passed an ordinance that criminalized the possession and sale of spice. Possession of spice in the city of Frederick is a misdemeanor violation, and stores are not permitted to sell the drug within the city limits. The penalty for possession is up to 90 days in jail, a fine of up to $1,000, or both.
There are currently no county codes prohibiting the possession or sale of spice. Frederick County Councilwoman Jessica Fitzwater (D) recently drafted a bill that would make spice and synthetic cathinones, also known as bath salts, illegal in the entire county.
State laws passed in 2012 impose heavier penalties for spice possession. The maximum penalties for synthetic marijuana range from 20 years in prison or $25,000 in fines for distribution or possession with the intent to distribute. Those convicted of simple possession of spice or K2 face up to four years in jail or $25,000 in fines.
The state’s attorney’s office has been opting to prosecute under state laws instead of the city ordinance, according to the police department.
Who are the users?
The hub of downtown spice use and sales is in Mullinix Park and along Carroll Street, Brooks said. Many of the people using spice are homeless, he added.
“They’ve had a couple [fatal overdoses] right there in [Mullinix] Park,” he said.
Christina Trenton, a licensed clinical social worker and certified addiction counselor at Wells House Recovery, said she’s seen an increase in spice abuse in the last five years.
“We have a limited understanding of K2 because synthetics have all kinds of iterations,” she said. “The physiological effects of the drug also vary person to person.”
Wiles said the different types of synthetic cannabinoids can contain any number of chemicals in them, including rat poison.
“We do see that when the recipe changes up, it can cause a variety of different changes in the people using it,” she said.
Because the substance is relatively new, there haven’t been any prolonged studies on the long-term effects of spice use, Trenton said.
Wells House usually sees spice users who are addicted to more than one substance, according to Trenton, and the center has never seen a person with an addiction solely to spice.
“Our experience has been, most patients that use have a primary diagnosis of another substance abuse,” she said. “Mostly heroin and cocaine — and, to a lesser extent — alcohol. Sometimes, people think, ‘I know I can’t control my cocaine use, let me try this other substance.’”
Trenton said people with addictions are seeking a way to escape reality and to forget trauma. A drug that won’t show up on screenings can be appealing to people in treatment, she added.
Brooks has encountered some people that are not on probation who use spice.
“I asked them, like, ‘Why aren’t you just smoking weed?’” he said. “And they like the feeling of spice now. Weed doesn’t do anything for them anymore. That’s why they continue to do it.”
Wiles said many of the people she’s seen overdose on spice have alcohol abuse problems and other addictions, but they usually don’t find other drugs in the possession of spice users who are cited.
Both Trenton and Brooks said spice addiction can be treated with standard interventions used for other addictions. But getting treatment to people who need it, especially those who are homeless or jobless, can be difficult, Brooks said.
On the new Frederick police policy, Brooks said he understands law enforcement is trying to save lives, but he worries the policy may end up leading to the opposite.
“If the people that are addicts are scared that people are going to get arrested, then people are going to be scared to have conversations and make that phone call,” he said. “Then you might end up with more people dying.
“I’m not saying it’s a bad idea. They might just want to think about really educating the community about it before a policy comes in place.”