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Spice: The truth behind the cannabis substitute wreaking havoc and claiming lives in Alabama

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For the small southern city of Anniston, 2011 seemed like a summer of madness. First came the cicadas, woken from their 13-year slumber by some ineffable urge. Then came the reports of a new drug in town. It was called Spice, and all the kids were trying it.

Then came the suicides. Brandon Murphree had just graduated from the only highschool in town, earning a full-ride scholarship to Jacksonville State University, right up the road. Murphree was handsome and popular. College was going to be a party.

But the party started early, then went sour. A few weeks after Murphree graduated, his parents started finding empty packets of Spice, or synthetic marijuana, scattered around the house. At the same time, their son began acting erratically. Normally happy and polite, he was suddenly sullen and rude. But the bizarre mood swings were only the beginning of the Murphrees’ midsummer nightmare.

Two weeks later, on 2 July, Murphree came home agitated. He argued with his parents, then tore through the house until he found his father’s handgun. Then, the popular kid headed to college, pointed the gun at his head and pulled the trigger.

Two months later, another local teen took his life after using Spice. The two suicides quickly turned into a rallying cry against the new synthetic drug. The mourning parents toured the state, blaming fake pot for their son’s death.

“We lost our child due to Spice,” Lori Murphree claimed. “Spice is the monster, not my son,” Steve Murphree said.

And remarkably, Alabama listened. In October 2011, the state became only the second in the country to designate Spice’s active ingredients as Schedule 1 drugs, meaning they would be subjected to the most restrictive controls.


“Alabamians need to be aware that these goods contain synthetic drugs and other chemicals which are very dangerous to their health. They are being sold in convenience stores and tobacco shops all over this state to unwary individuals including our children,” announced Governor Robert Bentley. “We are asking store owners and operators to remove these products from their shelves. And we have instructed our law enforcement agencies to take possession of any that they find for sale. Since the substances within these products have been scheduled as controlled substances, it will be illegal to make, sell, possess or use these dangerous drugs.”

That was supposed to be the end of Spice, at least in Alabama. Soon, the whole country was on board. In 2012, President Obama signed the Synthetic Drug Abuse Prevention Act, banning 26 types of synthetic drugs nationwide. The list included both cannabinoids, or marijuana-like downers including Spice, and cathinones, or methamphetamine-like uppers often called “bath salts”. Only 10 days later, a horrific assault made already frightened Americans even more scared of synthetic drugs. On 26 May 2012, in what would come to be called the “Miami Cannibal” attack, a deranged young man ate the face off another man before  he was shot and killed by police. The gruesome attack was initially – and wrongly, it turned out – blamed on bath salts.

But nearly four years after Alabama dealt with its Spice problem, the drug is not just back. It is more prevalent and dangerous than ever.

In April, health officials reported that 462 patients had visited hospitals in the past month after smoking or ingesting Spice. Ninety-six were hospitalised. Two died.

“Please do not take the risk. Do not use these products,” said Mary G McIntyre, Alabama’s assistant state health officer for disease control and prevention. “Responses to these chemicals can be unpredictable and deadly. People have experienced coma, kidney failure and heart attacks.”

“The designer drug substances consist of dried plant material sprayed with synthetic cannabinoids and any mixture of other unknown chemicals including pesticides and rat poison,” said a Health Department statement. “The chemical compounds reportedly stimulate the same brain areas affected by marijuana, and have a high potential for abuse. Users may opt for these marijuana alternatives because they believe they are safe.”

To Alabamians, the official announcement just confirmed the obvious. In recent weeks, officials across the state had reported a spike in incidents involving Spice. In Tuscaloosa, hospitals reported 24 Spice overdoses – including one death and others on life support – in 13 days, leading Police Chief Steven Anderson to call the situation “a public health crisis and a public safety crisis”. In the city of Fairfield, on the other side of the state, officials reported four suspected Spice overdoses in one day.

Other states, including New York, have recently reported a surge in Spice overdoses.

So how did Spice come back to haunt Alabama almost five years after it was supposed to be squashed? The answer is as complicated as the drug.

Because Spice is only a chemical sprayed on something smokable, its ingredients can be easily and quickly changed. Like a molecular shape-shifter, Spice is able to stay one step ahead of the authorities. As soon as a state or a country outlaws one particular cannabinoid, chemists cook up another.

That mutability has powered Spice’s rapid rise. The drug was first reported in the US in 2008. The next year, the federal government identified two new types. By 2012, that number had swelled to 51.

Despite a nationwide crackdown, the drug’s names, varieties and users continue to proliferate. In Alabama alone, there are dozens of different names for the drug: Spice, K2, Sence, Genie, Zohai, Yucatan Fire, Smoke, Sexy Monkey, Black Mamba and Skunk.

And even when officials do catch up with the brands and chemicals currently on the market, sometimes drug dealers take even more drastic measures. Last year, during a two-month investigation in west Alabama, police seized huge amounts of Spice only to find that it had been sprayed with insecticides and even rat poison for added potency.

And so it was that no sooner had Steve and Lori Murphree convinced their state to outlaw Spice than the drug that killed their son was back on the shelves – with a slightly different formula, but the same deadly results.

© The Washington Post

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