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Policing Synthetic Marijuana on LA's Skid Row

Spice first emerged on Skid Row about two years ago, and since then has spread like wildfire because of its affordability and accessibility.

by Hayley Fox
Aug 2 2015, 4:28am

All photos by David Austin.

More on new and questionably legal drugs:

How Synthetic Weed is Ravaging Brooklyn's Homeless Population
The Hard Lives of Britain's Synthetic Marijuana Addicts
Inside New Zealand's Synthetic Drug Scene
A Young Chemist Explains How Legal Highs Work

Lining the littered sidewalk near the corner of San Pedro and 6th Street in downtown LA's Skid Row, men sit on folding chairs and milk crates as they roll joint after joint of what looks like really bad pot. They each serve as a solitary assembly line, holding cardboard box tops on their lap that contain a stack of rolling papers and mountainous piles of dry, greenish brown leaves that best resemble your grandma's potpourri.

This substance is spice, the laboratory-made and insanity-inducing synthetic cannabinoid that functions more like a mind-bending mash-up of PCP, LSD and pot than your run-of-the mill weed. Skid Row dealers typically sell a spice joint for $1, a bargain for the area's homeless.

When spice turns to smoke, it's been described as smelling like everything from potent pot to feces.

"It smells like rotten ass," said 34-year-old Diann Lakey, a former Skid Row resident who still regularly visits the area.

More troubling than its stench is the effect spice has on its users, especially those who already suffer from mental illnesses. Nearly 4,000 people live in the shelters or on the streets of Skid Row, according to 2015 data provided to me by the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority. The same organization estimates that upwards of 30% of these residents have some type of mental health issue. (Though one LAPD officer I spoke to told me he thought this number was actually around 50%.)

Spice first emerged on Skid Row about two years ago, and since then has spread like wildfire because of it's affordability and accessibility. It's led to increasingly erratic behavior among an already vulnerable population, and contributed to a growing number of confrontations with police.

"I've seen people hit it [spice,] run around, lose their minds, talk about how people are after them, start humping the ground. I've seen it all," said Lakey.

Skid Row residents I spoke to told me they had seen users of the drug run into traffic, get hit by cars and continue on their way unphased. Another man I was told about climbed into a tree for two days and wouldn't come down.

LAPD Officer Deon Joseph has been working on Skid Row for 17 years and has become the unofficial mayor of the homeless epicenter. He manages to straddle the line between enforcer and advocate, endearing many area residents to him. More than 250 pounds of pure muscle, Joseph's uniform clings to his biceps as if it's on the verge of splitting wide open.

He's be the last person you'd expect to struggle taking someone into custody, but spice makes people freakishly strong, and users are more inclined to confront police, according to Joseph.

"People are under the assumption that we don't know how to deal with mental illness down here in Central [Division]. That's not true, but when mental illness hits spice, not even the best-trained mental health clinician could be standing with us and would be able to stop it," Joseph said. "So confrontations with law enforcement seem to be increasing."

At a recent press conference hosted by LA Mayor Eric Garcetti, a man "flipped out" in front of City Hall. He was sweaty, delusional, walking in circles and saying that his deceased mom was there with him. Police officers were forced to intervene, according to Officer Joseph. The man admitted he had just smoked spice and proceeded to threaten to kill himself and beg Joseph to shoot him. Even for the burly cop, restraining the spice-fueled man was a challenge, he admitted.

A few months ago on Skid Row, a mentally ill man ended up dead after a series of confrontations that appear to have been driven by a combination of his mental issues and drug use, Joseph told me. The man, often bullied for being gay, was usually very cordial with the LAPD officer, but when spice hit Skid Row two years ago, the man's mental state began to deteriorate. He eventually picked a fight with Officer Joseph, attempted to assault a woman and ended up in a tussle on 7th and Wall streets that left him with stab wounds in the neck and chest. His injuries killed him a few months later.

"The agitation, the hallucinations, the paranoia, you add those three things together and you're going to have an MMA brawl, a free-for-all..." Officer Joseph said.

Fellow LAPD officer Stephen Nichols worked Skid Row for about a decade and has seen spice users demonstrate quasi-psychotic behavior, extreme rage and "almost superhuman strength." Unlike "passive" drugs like heroin that dramatically lower a person's body temperature and heart rate—and often lull users into a sedative state—spice has the opposite effect, according to Nichols.

"It tends to manifest itself in exhibitions of violence," he said.

One of the most high-profile instances of Skid Row violence happened earlier this year between a homeless man and the LAPD. On March 1, a mentally ill transient known to some as "Africa" (actually a 43-year-old named Charly Leundeu Keunang) was shot several times and killed by police. The incident garnered widespread attention and drew protesters to downtown LA.

An autopsy of Keunang was released on Wednesday and showed that the Cameroon native had methamphetamine and marijuana in his system at the time of death. Keunang's killing spurred LAPD Police Chief Charlie Beck to publicly comment on the state of homeless drug use in Los Angeles.

"The combination of mental illness and drug abuse on skid row leads to multiple violent confrontations, and it appeared to have an impact on this confrontation," he said. "It is a tragedy, and one of the things that makes addressing homelessness in Los Angeles so important."

Hard facts and figures on overall spice usage in Los Angeles are difficult to come by. An LAPD spokesperson who I spoke to by phone told me that this is in part because the LAPD doesn't keep department-wide stats on what drug a person is arrested for, just that the person was arrested for a substance-related violation in general.

Officer Nichols said he personally hasn't arrested anyone for smoking spice, in large part because it's difficult to arrest someone for merely being under the influence, unless that intoxication results in something like an overdose.

"I can't speak for any other officers, [but] it's not something that we have arrested for, not that we wouldn't," he said.

In the aftermath of California's Prop 47, which re-classified some drug infractions from felonies to misdemeanors, many offenders who are arrested are often quickly released, according to Nichols.

"What used to carry some significance in terms of jail time, parole, probation...have been lessened to the extent that its almost as if they've been issued a misdemeanor citation," he said. "It's given and there are no real penalties."

The LAPD told me that, earlier this summer, they did seize and book 30 pounds of "uncut" spice on Skid Row. However, according to one police official I spoke to, there is no health and safety code on the books for spice, so officers were forced to classify the drug as "Potpourri" and merely issue citations to those involved.

Still, that amount of spice is nothing to sneeze at, and would constitute a "pretty significant hit," DEA Special Agent Timothy Massino told me in an email.

There's another reason that local spice arrest rates are unclear: until recently, spice was legal, and in some incarnations, still technically is. Although the feds have made spice illegal through efforts like the 2012 Synthetic Drug Abuse Prevention Act that outlaws 26 types of synthetic drugs like spice and bath salts, drug-makers stay one step ahead of the law by changing their recipe just enough to circumvent restrictions, explained DEA Special Agent Vijay Rathi.

"Legally, the drug has to be named by its exact chemical compound," in the law, he said. "If it's off by even one molecule...it's technically not illegal."

While the feds have a law that allows them to sidestep this formality, the definitions of legality become murkier at a local level. So Skid Row shelters and recovery programs have taken matters into their own hands.

Skid Row's Union Rescue Mission has begun testing incoming recovery clients for spice, according to Steven Borja, executive vice president of the mission's programs and operations. At about $2 per urine dipstick, the mission typically only tests for spice when people come up negative for other drugs but still appear intoxicated.

Spice use has become so prevalent that Borja is going to ask for more money in the budget to keep the tests on hand. Although little is known about the long-term effects of spice on the brain or the body, its immediate damage to those with mental health problems is apparent.

"It's certainly going to exacerbate somebody who's schizophrenic, or somebody who's bipolar, or somebody who's just dealing with depression," said Borja. "It's going to make those things worse."

Duane Mackey

Around the corner from Borja's mission, Duane Mackey works as a housing coordinator at the Midnight Mission. Mackey has been on Skid Row for 35 years and clean for the last two of them. His coiffed Jheri curl-esque hair is framed by a collared shirt and tie, exceedingly polite demeanor and a vast knowledge of how things work in the LA homeless community.

The mission's courtyard and entryway is a central hangout for many homeless in the area, and Mackey has seen firsthand the damage spice can do to the marginalized.

"It's crippling us down here," said Mackey. "It's made it very hard to tell who has mental illness and who has a drug addiction."

By all accounts, there are a lot of both. Diann Lakey and her 53-year-old boyfriend Tyrone Mason estimate that as many as one in five people on Skid Row are smoking spice. Both Lakey and Mason are now clean and live outside of the homeless epicenter, but have deep ties to the area and return to visit often.

"It's just sad that these individuals, that are on this particular drug, don't realize what they're smoking," Mason told me. "This is almost somewhat similar to, like, a cocaine epidemic. Because now that they got this new drug and they're liking it or whatever, everybody's smoking it."