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Spice familiar to those incarcerated at McLaughlin Youth Center

By Rhonda McBride 5:48 AM January 14, 2014

Hallucinations, delirium, paranoia, depression and violent behavior are among some of the side effects teens at McLaughlin witnessed before their incarceration.

ANCHORAGE - Although police and medical professionals have suspected “Spice,” a so-called synthetic form of marijuana, is responsible for causing serious health problems, even death — its abuse is hard to track.

In most of the drug testing that goes on in Alaska, it’s not a substance that consistently gets screened.

Drug treatment programs said the tests are expensive and not always conclusive, partly because synthetic marijuana is a mystery mix of chemicals, constantly changing to avoid prosecution.

But kids at the McLaughlin Youth Center in Anchorage are all too familiar with its dangers.

To protect the confidentiality of the teens in this story, who could face possible retaliation upon leaving McLaughlin, they are only identified by their age and first initial.

K, now 17, said he was about 14 when he first tried the drug. He was on a skateboard ride through Town Square Park in Downtown Anchorage when he was flagged down.

“Someone pulls out a Spice stick,” he said. “They’re like, ‘You want to hit it?’ Sure. And especially if you’re on probation. They don’t really test you for that.”

M, a lanky 18-year-old, said he tried spice when he was 14 or 15. It makes him angry that the packaging for Spice, which includes cartoon characters and smiley faces, is aimed at kids in middle school.

He called it a form of false advertising, leading him to believe Spice was safe. But the first time he tried it, he had a bad reaction.

“I remember my heart rate like, pick up,” M said. “I felt like it was bouncing off the bed and back on to my chest and stuff. It was pretty crazy. I thought my heart was about to explode or something.”

“Most people say it’s synthetic marijuana,” M said. “But it’s nothing like marijuana. So I would just call it something stupid.”

Something stupid and downright dangerous, M said.

K said he was smoking Spice with another teenager, who ended up having a seizure.

“It was really scary,” he said. “She could have, like, fell down and not got back up or something. And nobody was trying to help her or anything. We didn’t know what to do. We were too high.”

The girl survived, but K began to rethink his use of Spice. He said it altered his own sense of perception.

“I was convinced that like nothing was real,” K said. “And that all anything was, was dust hitting each other, forming something in a room of black. And that I was there, just to be here.”

K also saw others become like “zombies.”

“I’ve seen people who get addicted to it, who can’t go five minutes without smoking a Spice joint. It’s kind of sad,” K said.

Hallucinations, delirium, paranoia, depression and violent behavior are among some of the side effects teens at McLaughlin witnessed before their incarceration.

According to national drug experts, girls are less likely to use Spice than boys. But if they try it, it’s also in their early teens.

“I must of been 15,” said T, who is now 18. She said she tried Spice, thinking it was marijuana, but quickly realized it wasn’t.

“And like everything was dizzy and weird,” T said. “I didn’t like it at all, but I kept doing it after that, because it was a cheap high.”

She described the high as an “out of body” experience, in which faces constantly changed shape. She noticed that the moods of people on Spice also shape-shifted.

“You can be very happy,” she said. “Or you can be very angry. You can be depressed. Anything. I’ve heard of people committing suicide because of it.”

Another teen at McLaughlin, now 18, said she was 14 when she first tried Spice.

“At the time, I was actually pregnant,” said A, who was told by other users that Spice was safer than marijuana to use during her pregnancy, because it was natural and had no harmful substances.

A describes the high from Spice as more like meth than marijuana, or actually more like a combination of the two.

“Right away when I tried it, I was pretty sure it wasn’t good for the baby,” said A, who is grateful that her son appears to have been born healthy.

A said she stopped using Spice during her pregnancy, but after her son was born, began using it again.

She remembers having auditory hallucinations, including hearing her mom scream.

“It was just a very violent screech, and it was unmistakably my mom’s voice,” A said.

Girls, T said, often use Spice to impress older guys, who will try to get them really high.

T said she knew a man who would lure girls with Spice and get them to smoke a lot.

“Maybe one or two bowls,” T said. “And he’d wait until they were almost blacked out and do things with them.”

“If you smoke a large amount, you will probably end up being very vulnerable,” T said. “I know that from experience. I could barely walk.”

Anchorage police interrupted the sexual assault of a woman in Town Square Park last summer. The woman, in her early 20s, was high on Spice, said Sgt. Ken McCoy.

“The woman was aware of the rape,” McCoy said. “But the Spice had so immobilized her, she couldn’t fight it off.”

McCoy said this is the first time he was aware of a situation like this. In most cases, police are called to deal with a phenomenon known as “Spice rage,” where people become suddenly and unexpectedly violent.

T has seen this firsthand.

“I know someone who I’m pretty close to,” she said. “He smoked it almost every day, if not every day. And he’s become very violent and very angry with everybody.”

T was sent to McLaughlin after she was busted for shoplifting at a Wal-Mart store. She said she was high on bath salts at the time.

She’s glad McLaughlin put an end to her drug use. She’s worked on her education and is eligible for a state scholarship, which she plans to use as soon as she gets out.

Even though she is in jail, she at least feels free from the bondage of Spice and other drugs.

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