It was a bond revocation hearing, assistant district attorney Matt Mitchell, remembers. He was talking with a woman who was wanting to get out of jail. She had been in the Jackson County Jail for 48 hours after being brought in on spice.
“The first part of the conversation she had anger, denial and was aggressive,” said Mitchell. “I was glad she had handcuffs on.”
Mitchell said the woman’s mood immediately switched to irrational, crying and pleading to get out of jail.
“I had dealt with her before,” said Mitchell. “She was normal then. Since she’s never been the same. The person she was before is just not there. It’s scary and sad.”
Brandon Brown of Jackson County Court Referral said the 35-year-old woman had a very mild mental health issue before using spice.
“She’s never come back,” he added.
What is it?
Synthetic cannabinoids, known commonly by the name of “Spice” or “K2,” first became available in the United States in the mid-2000’s. These synthetic products are designer drugs in which incense or other leafy materials are sprayed with lab-synthesized liquid chemicals to mimic the effect of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the psychoactive ingredient in the naturally grown cannabis sativa plant.
Synthetic cannabinoids are sometimes incorrectly called “synthetic marijuana,” and are often promoted as safe or legal substitutes to natural marijuana.
“It’s not marijuana at all,” said Chief Deputy Rocky Harnen of the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office. “People on it literally go psycho in the jail, screaming and hollering. Sometimes it’s days before people come down from this mess.”
Spice or K2 became increasingly popular with high school students and young adults in the mid-2000’s because it was legal and easily obtainable from convenience stores, smoke shops and online. However, in July 2012, a national ban was enacted against the sale of synthetic cannabinoids in the United States. The product, however may still be found sold illegally on the streets.
Scottsboro Police Department Capt. Zackie Gant remembers an incident in 2007 when some kids were caught using spice.
“They were paranoid, seeing things,” said Gant. “One smoked it and said he had an outer body experience.”
Harnen said a big draw to the drug is people on probation and community corrections looking to pass a drug test. Because standard drug testing only tests for THC found in plant-based marijuana, synthetic cannabinoid products may not trigger a positive result.
Spice isn’t a single substance but can be one or a mixture of more than 100 subtly different man-made chemicals.
Mitchell said it can also be hard to prosecute.
“We’ll have cases where an officer makes an arrest. We will send it to forensics to get tested. It might take eight or nine months. By that time, chemicals could evaporate,” he said.
A possible felony arrest becomes a misdemeanor.
Manufacturers attempt to evade restrictions by substituting different chemicals in their mixtures.
‘Worse than meth’
Mitchell said he’s dealt with a lot of people who use methamphetamine. There is no comparison, though, to spice, he said.
“I have seen people on spice truly scare me,” Mitchell said. “It broke them. Made them absolutely insane.”
Harnen said it’s a big problem in the jail.
“They get very agitated,” he said. “We have to isolate them. It might take days for them to come down off of it. It mimics mental health issues.”
“It amplifies a person’s mental health condition,” added Brown. “It’s doing neurological damage to the brain. It’s horrible.”
Brown said people using spice say they see demons.
“They’ll describe it to you,” he said. “They are not in their right mind. It’s so addictive. It’s rough to detox off of it, too. They are not going to sleep spice off.”
“It’s worse than meth right now,” added Scottsboro investigator Chris McIllwain.
Like most drugs, spice isn’t bias towards its users. People suffering from chaotic life situations, often homeless or low income, find it an affordable replacement to marijuana and other drugs.
Gant said, where a gram of methamphetamine might cost $100, a gram of spice could go as low as $5.
Complications due to spice may include high blood pressure, nausea and vomiting, anxiety and agitation, seizures, rapid heart rate, excessive sweating, confusion and hallucinations.
“Spice is worse than meth,” said Brown. “I think it’s more dangerous because what it can do to your mind.”
Help is available.
“We can get anyone in treatment that won’t cost them a dime,” Brown said. “I don’t know if it makes a difference or not. A lot times they get put in jail to save themselves.”
“It’s a hard problem,” added Harnen. “It’s something we are going to be dealing with for a long time, I am afraid.”