NEW PORT RICHEY — Just one deep breath in, and the teenage boy choked and vomited. His muscles twitched sporadically. His friend called an ambulance.
Jake Suojanen isn't a drug addict. He has tried marijuana, like many 17-year-olds. He was an honors student only six months ago, his parents said, earning A's, B's and the occasional C at River Ridge High School. His dad, Erik Suojanen, is preparing him to run multiple family businesses. His eyes are honest, inquisitive — the eyes of a teenager on the brink of being a man.
About six months ago, Jake started using Spice, a legal alternative to marijuana. Since then, his grades have dropped to D's and F's. He's taking online classes this summer to catch up so he can graduate in a year.
But it wasn't dismal grades that convinced Jake to stop using Spice. It was terror.
• • •
Jake was smoking Spice late in May with his friend's older brother. They went back and forth in the cramped, dirty bathroom at his friend's house. His friend's mother didn't know what they were doing.
The brother handed Jake a makeshift bong crafted from an old water bottle. Jake sucked in deep. The euphoria that coursed through him was stronger than any he'd ever felt, he said. Strong enough to be almost painful.
He climbed into the empty bathtub. That's where his memory goes blank.
His friend walked in and saw Jake seizing on the floor and vomiting. He ran out, told his mother, called 911. His mother called Jake's parents, who rushed over with Jake's older sister.
When Erik arrived at the house, his heart dropped. He saw an ambulance and his son strapped to a gurney. He caught Jake's eye and mouthed, "Are you okay?"
Jake gave him a weak thumbs-up as they loaded him in. The ambulance doors slammed shut.
• • •
Spice isn't an uncommon drug in the nation, or Florida or Pasco County.
Dr. Asher Gorelik, a psychiatrist and director of medical services for BayCare Behavioral Health, said Spice is increasingly common.
"We know that the use of it has increased a lot, at least doubled over the last couple years, nationally and specifically in Florida," Gorelik said.
Kevin Doll, spokesman for the Pasco County Sheriff's Office, agreed. He said deputies have increasingly run into people becoming mentally disturbed after using Spice and other variations of synthetic marijuana, making them unpredictable, psychotic and sometimes dangerous.
In March, a Wesley Chapel man who had been smoking Spice was arrested for allegedly beating his elderly father with a broom and injuring the deputy who responded. In May, a 19-year-old patient being admitted to the Medical Center of Trinity after using Spice and other drugs was arrested for turning belligerent with hospital staff. In the month in between, Justin Plaza, a 23-year-old Afghanistan veteran who became aggressive and hallucinatory when he smoked the synthetic marijuana K2, died in a Dade City standoff with the SWAT team.
There has been little research about synthetic marijuana because it comes in many forms, Gorelik said, so it's hard to pin down specific effects, including potential long-term health problems.
But a report released last month by the American College of Emergency Physicians documents one case in which a 58-year-old man died of cardiac arrest after using synthetic marijuana. The report says during a nine-month period in 2010, the National Poison Data System received 1,898 reports of health problems caused by forms of synthetic marijuana. The most commonly reported effect was irregular heartbeat. More than 50 patients also experienced seizures, including two cases of prolonged seizures that could cause brain damage or death. The report also detailed agitation, confusion, hallucinations and vomiting as possible side effects.
Gorelik said there is always a risk when adolescents, whose brains are still in development, use mind-altering drugs.
The question, then, is why Spice isn't illegal. Some forms of it are, Doll said, but every time one chemical component is outlawed, manufacturers switch it out for a legal substitute.
Gorelik said five compounds used in Spice have been outlawed by the Food and Drug Administration, and nine more could be outlawed pending passage of federal legislation.
"But until that happens, those substances are still legal," Gorelik said. "Even then, there are so many more."
• • •
Erik followed the ambulance carrying Jake to the hospital. Jake's mother, Colleen, rode in the front seat of the emergency vehicle. She asked the driver if her son would die. He said no. She wondered if his brain was permanently damaged. The driver couldn't be sure.
When they arrived at the emergency room, Erik grew increasingly angry as he watched people drive tubes into his son. Jake came to and told Erik he'd bought the drug at Metro Gas on Little Road. Erik stormed out and drove to Little Road.
He slammed his fist on the counter at Metro Gas. He showed the manager a photo of Jake he'd snapped with his phone at the hospital, and accused the store of selling the drug. The man denied it, then insisted it was legal.
Erik swore it wasn't right to treat people that way, to sell poison to children. The man smirked at him, he said.
• • •
That horrifying day started a crusade. Erik and Colleen have made it their mission to outlaw Spice and shame local businesses that sell it.
The movement came to a head Wednesday, when Erik and dozens more he'd reached protested in front of Metro Gas. They were scattered along the roadway with signs decrying the store and drug, pointing to make sure drivers knew their target.
The owner of Metro Gas declined to comment to the Tampa Bay Times but indicated he would call police if protestors trespassed on his property.
Jake wasn't with his family or friends to protest at Metro Gas. The spotlight on him had become overbearing, and though he didn't mind his parents using his experience to further their cause, he said he needed a break.
About a half hour into the protest, a young woman walking into the gas station noticed the signs. She called to Colleen, saying her 14-year-old son had almost had a heart attack after using Spice.
Colleen's face creased, angry. "Don't go there!"
The woman looked at the store, then back at Colleen. "They sell it here?"
The woman walked away.
Some protestors were there for Jake and his family. Some came because they know or love someone who has been affected by drugs. Some are on a personal fight against narcotics.
That day, Spice embodied the things each protestor is afraid of. Not drugs, but what drugs cause. A whirlwind that's euphoria and terror and regret.
But this drug is legal.
Mary Kenney can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 869-6247.