“Spice Roulette” is a dangerous game for both Anchorage’s homeless and the city itself.

On Tuesday of this week, photojournalist Emily Landeen and I witnessed a spice meltdown outside Bean’s Café, where the homeless congregate for meals and temporary comfort from the outdoors.

We were asking the clients to share their insights on the toll that spice, a form of synthetic marijuana, is taking on the homeless. A few spoke to us, and we are grateful for their courage, because others told us they feared retaliation from other spice users and drug dealers.

As we were interviewing one man, another young guy named Jeff kept badgering us, telling us he wanted to be interviewed.

Although I was a little surprised after being turned down so much, I told him we would do so, as soon as we finished our interview. After we were done, I looked around and saw Jeff on the sidewalk smoking something. We approached him, asked if we could put a microphone on him and he mumbled something about wanting to become a TV star.

In a matter of minutes, we saw Jeff turn into a drooling, incoherent mess.

Bean’s security staff called an ambulance. Medics carried him away to the emergency room after they were unable to get any response from him.

We debated whether we should blur Jeff’s face — but decided not to, because we wanted you to see how quickly spice acts, and why it sends so many to the emergency room for life-threatening reactions.

This scene has repeated itself frequently since July — with emergency responders coming several times a day to Bean’s to attend to spice cases. In the month of October, Anchorage medics responded to 30 spice-related calls.

In this program, we look at the threat not just to spice users, but to the public at large.

We hear from many voices:

    • Homeless alcoholics and addicts who have tried spice and nearly died from it
    • Dr. Michael Levy, an emergency room physician at Alaska Regional Hospital and the medical director for the Anchorage Fire Department’s EMS services. Levy talks about the threat to patients, who are waiting for care, as emergency room staffers scramble to deal with several spice cases at once
    • Dr. Michael Cooper, an epidemiologist who heads up the state’s infectious disease department, which is researching the chemical makeup of spice found on patients taken to the emergency room. He gives us an update on the latest findings.
    • Anchorage Fire Chief Denis LeBlanc, who has personally gone out on spice calls to understand the toll it’s taking on some of the city’s most vulnerable, as well as his first responders.
    • Lt. Sean Case, dayshift supervisor for the Anchorage Police Department. Case gives an update on police investigations into spice dealers and efforts taken to crack down on them.

We hope this edition of Frontiers helps Alaskans understand the true dangers of the drug.

For many in Anchorage, the outbreak of spice cases is simply not on their radar screen — since most of it occurs in places downtown, where the homeless congregate, and not in their backyard. But the reality is these cases tie up public safety services that might be needed elsewhere.

And those in charge of Anchorage’s public safety system fear we are playing a game of spice roulette, in which the day will come where someone who’s in need of services won’t get them in time.

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