Floridians Are Losing Their Minds on Synthetic Cannabis

By Christian Crider

The rumors are floating among bystanders in downtown St. Petersburg, where a body lies motionless on the sidewalk, covered by a plastic sheet. Was it over a stolen lighter? Or was it a bicycle? It doesn't matter. Kenneth Robert Sprankle finally snapped. Just like he said he would.

On the afternoon of September 24, Sprankle "borrowed" a red and yellow firefighter's axe from a fire engine responding to an alarm at the Princess Martha Apartments. He started his evening by smoking spice, grabbing the axe, and wandering through downtown. Surveillance video caught Sprankle clutching the axe across his waist as he walked purposefully through the frame, seemingly oblivious to concerned onlookers trailing him from a safe distance. Witnesses recalled seeing him in an agitated state, wandering around nearby Williams Park with the axe for nearly three hours. Nobody bothered reporting him to police until things began to unwind, and Sprankle began yelling incomprehensible threats and chasing terrified citizens down bustling sidewalks.

St. Petersburg police quickly responded to an emergency call. The small group fleeing his erratic pursuit rounded a corner and ran past the officers. Moments later, Sprankle followed, axe raised menacingly. His world was closing in. Ignoring repeated orders to drop the axe, he charged. As Sprankle closed the distance, axe held high, veteran officer Damien Schmidt leveled a pistol at his chest and fired. 

Five shots later, Ken Sprankle's body crumpled to the sidewalk. The holes in his chest were fatal. He was 27.


A mugshot of Sprankle just over a month before his death. Photo courtesy Pinellas County Sheriff's Office

Sprankle suffered from mental illnesses. He was bipolar and schizophrenic. In January, he moved from Pennsylvania to Florida, hoping the beaches and tropical climate would alleviate his depression. This was his greatest mistake. Moving to Florida is like falling in love with a pretty girl who's constantly considering murdering you. It's a bad place to come if you're looking for a fresh start. The warm weather, glorious nature, and endless theme parks are a siren song devised to capture unwary travelers and their money. If given the opportunity, Florida will rob you blind, drive you crazy, and devour you with a creepy smile on its face.

When interviewed by the Tampa Bay Times, his aunt said, “This was his first big adventure. I guess he just couldn't handle it.”

He never had a chance. His problems escalated. He was trapped in the soiled underbelly of St. Pete. He became indigent and frequented Williams Park, a downtown hub for dealers, junkies, and transients. He stopped taking his medication. Got busted for stealing a bicycle. Threw himself in front of a car. Spit in the face of a mental healthcare worker. Strangled himself with hospital equipment. Tried to drown in Mirror Lake after smoking crack.

His public arrest records (insanely easy to access in Florida) list eight arrests since March. In addition, he was confined under Florida's Baker Act twice in the weeks leading up to his death—a total of seven times since March of this year. Sometimes by his own request, sometimes not.

He needed help. If he didn't get back on his meds, he might snap and kill someone.

Somewhere in that chaotic mix, in his most desperate moments, synthetic cannabis came waltzing into his life.


The axe wielded by Kenneth Robert Sprankle during his rampage through downtown St. Petersburg. Photo courtesy St. Petersburg Police Department

This isn't the pot in your mom's sock drawer. In fact, it has very little in common with the sticky green buds she's no doubt toking as you read this article.

Often referred to as spice, synthetic cannabis is really a catchall term for hundreds of synthetic cannabinoid compounds developed in the 80s by Dr. John W. Huffman and his team of scientists, hoping to treat diseases like multiple sclerosis. Many of the first and second generation compounds, like JWH-018 or JWH-007, bare Huffman's initials. Later generations of compounds rock names like AKB48, or XLR-11.

They come in basic powder form, or mixed with herbal blends. Underground manufacturers soak various herbs like damiana, lavender, and blue lotus in a chemical solution of cannabinoids. Often, the solutions include mystery ingredients like synthetic opioids, bronchodilators and insecticides like thymol. Alternatively, they allow the chemicals to evaporate into the herbs. Though this technique has shown to be uneven, creating “hot spots” where chemicals are more concentrated. If you end up smoking a hot spot, holy shit, strap in.

Once their synthetic crop is harvested, they put it in a shiny package and give it a slick brand name like Spice, K-2, Pandora's Box, Atomic Bomb, Ultra Haze, or Toxic Waste. The desired effects range from a mild high to cracked-out euphoria to mind-blasting hallucinations.

The ingredients of these blends are rarely divulged on the packaging. Instead, a disclaimer, “not intended for human consumption,” is printed somewhere on the label. As if that's going to stop someone from packing it in their favorite pipe and blowing lungfuls of smoke until the walls are melting.

Unlike marijuana, which is damn near impossible to overdose on, ingesting too much spice can induce intense hallucinations, palpitations, inability to speak, vomiting, psychotic episodes, near death experiences, paranoia, agitation, tremors, overheating, or heart attacks.


An anonymous Floridian bugging out after smoking spice. Photo via YouTube user o0Nightshadez0o

I recently met a guy in a coffee shop, and the subject of spice came up. He preferred to remain anonymous, but told me it felt like his heart was going to explode from his chest. He wanted to make sure I told people that it's nothing like marijuana. “Shit's crazy,” he said.

If you're lucky, it gets you super fucking high. If not. You might end up spasming on the floor of a hospital, or chasing your neighbors down the street with sharp objects.

A new study, “Ischemic stroke after use of the synthetic marijuana 'spice,'” published Nov. 8 in Neurology by medical researchers at the University of South Florida, shows a compelling link between synthetic cannabis and the risk of stroke.

The researchers presented the strange case of two siblings, brother and sister, who both experienced “acute cerebral infarctions,” after separately smoking from the same batch of spice containing JWH-018.  

The study also notes that the rise in strokes blamed on marijuana correlates to the rise in synthetic cannabis consumption. Because many potheads also indulge in legal highs (especially when they can't find weed), and many synthetic compounds are not detected by standard toxicology screens, it's possible that strokes being blamed on marijuana may be missing spice as the culprit.

Essentially, smoking spice is like playing Russian roulette with your brain chemistry. Even if you knew every herb and chemical compound in a blend, you wouldn't be any closer to understanding what will happen if you roll a fat mystery spliff and set its ingredients loose on your mind.

There was a magical time when all kinds of synthetic cannabis were sold legally on the internet and in head shops, bodegas, and gas stations all over the United States. That time has passed. Not really.

The federal government started cracking down in 2011, as they inevitably do when people start dying from having too much fun. That year, the DEA added numerous synthetic compounds, including JWH-018, to the list of Schedule I substances under the Controlled Substances Act.

Despite the continued crackdown, spice is still being manufactured. The shady motherfuckers producing spice by the metric shit ton didn't just roll over and call it quits. To stay ahead of newly created laws, they change and tweak their recipes. Each ban only serves to usher in a new generation of untested research chemicals with unknown effects.

In the years since the crackdown began, avowed drug warrior and Florida attorney general Pam Bondi has issued two emergency rules, most recently in October of this year. Each order temporarily adds new compounds to list of the state's Schedule I drugs. She's hoping the Florida legislature will permanently ban them in the 2014 session.

Regardless of the Law's best efforts, the Tampa Bay area has been a hotbed for the manufacture and sale of synthetic cannabis. In 2012, an ABC Action News investigative team discovered several businesses involved in selling spice by the fuckload.

One business in Tampa, Baba Wholesale, was manufacturing and distributing massive quantities of spice. After being discovered, they conveniently disappeared, likely relocating to a town with less curious reporters.

When ambushed by the ABC team and challenged about the harmful effects his product might have on kids, Baba's boss George Challita cynically asked, “Why would I worry about someone I have no control over?”

It's unknown which brand of spice Ken Sprankle smoked before his axe-wielding rampage. His history of drug use, mental illness, and suicidal behavior only stacked the odds against him when he took that last puff. Though questions remain about the use of deadly force, the officer who shot Sprankle was cleared of any wrongdoing.

In a strange turn of events, Ashton Stottler, a man who claimed Sprankle chased him for no apparent reason, was arrested nine days later for battery against a police officer, and possession of synthetic marijuana. According to court records, he pled guilty and received 35 days in jail, including time served.

Getting chased with an axe wasn't Stottler's only close call this year. In January, he stabbed a man thirteen times after the man barged into an Arkansas home where he was staying with a lady-friend and attacked him. Self-defense, he said.

Oddly enough, he attempted to stitch the man's wounds with dental floss before the cops came. I hope it was mint. 

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