LOS ANGELES — The City Council adopted an emergency motion Aug. 26 asking the city attorney to prepare an ordinance that would ban synthetic drugs like spice, recently blamed for outbreaks in which about 70 people on Skid Row were sickened.
Councilman Mitch Englander proposed the ban, saying the city needs to do something about an extremely low-cost drug that is “wreaking havoc in our communities,” especially among “those most vulnerable in society.”
The council approved an emergency motion co-authored by Englander and Councilman Jose Huizar that asks the city attorney to write an ordinance barring the sale, distribution, manufacture and possession of “novel synthetic drugs and novel psychoactive drugs” in Los Angeles, potentially modeling it after one adopted in San Diego last month.
Spice is believed to be linked to incidents on Aug. 22, when more than 20 people became ill on Skid Row, and Aug. 19, when nearly 50 people were sickened.
The latest rash of overdoses follows an incident in April, when about 10 people were sickened within a 24-hour span in the area of San Pedro and Fifth streets.
The motion also calls on Gov. Jerry Brown to support restrictions that would close some loopholes in existing laws prohibiting synthetic drugs.
While state and federal laws currently ban the substances often used to create spice and many other synthetic drugs, manufacturers are changing their recipes “to get around those laws,” Englander said.
Huizar, whose district includes Skid Row, said that they are asking the city attorney to close those kinds of “loopholes in our own local laws,” but he also cautioned that the city should be “approaching this as a health issue, and not necessarily a law enforcement one.”
“We want to make sure that people on Skid Row, who are already facing desperate situations, that the victims are not further penalized as we approach this,” he said.
City officials will also look into how other cities “have partnered with federal law enforcement to look at the supply chain, and to focus on the manufacturers, so that we are coordinating in a much better fashion, so we stop the supply chain where we need to,” Huizar said.
Police and fire department officials have been scrambling to get a handle on the popularity of spice, which has been especially attractive to homeless residents of Skid Row because of its cost.
Los Angeles Police Department Capt. Don Graham told the City Council that “the insidiousness of this particular drug is the price point — $1 for two joints for an average high of six hours — by far the cheapest option for a mind-altering situation.”
Officers have been doing outreach to Skid Row residents about the dangers of spice, but “the way to make people safe from a spice overdose is to bring them home,” Graham said. “If you have a loved one on Skid Row and you know where to find them, bring them home.”
Los Angeles Fire Department Chief Deputy Joseph Castro said that since the initial outbreak in April, the fire department has treated “85 patients in probably a two-square block area.”
“That is indeed a crisis,” he said, adding that it is “only going to get worse, and it’s absolutely plausible in the foreseeable future to have a similar incident with 300, 400 or 500 patients.”
Graham said that while Skid Row is “no stranger to overdoses,” it escalated to an unprecedented level Aug. 19, when a command post needed to be set up to deal with the flood of calls.
Dealers have come out with more dangerous batches of spice, potentially to stay ahead of existing laws, but also due to the diminishing effectiveness of the drugs after frequent use, Graham said.
“Unfortunately, what our intelligence has discovered on the street is that people who have been on spice for a very long time develop a resistance to that, and so their high is less effective,” he said.
Dealers have resorted to adding household chemicals such as bug spray, brake fluid and laundry freshening chemicals to the drugs in order to maintain their effectiveness, Graham said.
The county Department of Public Health said the synthetic cannabinoid drug can cause severe side effects, including altered mental status, loss of consciousness, extreme anxiety, agitation, high blood pressure, heart arrhythmias, nausea/vomiting, seizures and death.
Other street names for the drug include Sexy Monkey, Black Mamba and Twilight, according to the county.
Spice and other synthetic cannabinoids are created by spraying psychoactive chemicals onto plant material, which is then smoked or ingested.
However, county officials acknowledged that not much is known about what goes into making spice and agreed that the latest illnesses may be due to someone mixing toxic substances into the already dangerous drug.