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'Zombies' and seizures: Tampa Bay discovers it has new problems with spice (w/video)

TAMPA

At first, no one seemed to notice the two men sitting on the short wall across from the Marion Transit Center. With eyes shut and heads bobbing, the pair swayed, their limbs twitched. One man, wearing a red shirt bearing the phrase "Southern Muscle," began to have a seizure.

This was midmorning on a hot Thursday late last month in downtown Tampa, a few blocks north of the federal courthouse and the posh high-rise apartments at Skypoint and Element.

Locals, most of them the homeless who pace the streets near the bustling bus station, slowly took notice. A man sat beside the pair.

"His name is Tripp," the man said. "He's my friend. I met him yesterday. He's okay. He's just high."

Someone mentioned the drug known as spice.

At the noise of voices, Tripp looked up. He stared with bleary eyes at faces familiar and unfamiliar. He put his head down and began convulsing again under the blistering sun.

• • •

The problem with spice is it makes people sick. They pass out. They vomit. They overheat. They have heart attacks.

That part is nothing new. Spice has been a staple of the local drug scene since about 2010. It is typically smoked, the various chemical substances at its core having been sprayed onto an herbal material. Those substances are synthetic cannabinoids, which behave in ways similar to THC, the active ingredient in marijuana. Hence the colloquialisms "synthetic marijuana," "fake weed," and "legal pot." But it can be 100 times more potent than pot.

"You see marijuana effects, only full blast," said Dr. Tamas Peredy, the medical director for the Florida Poison Information Center in Tampa. "When I talk to people who come into the hospital, they say marijuana is mild compared to this stuff."

The problem with spice these days is that police and paramedics are seeing more of it. And it is consuming public resources like never before.

• • •

In March, the city of Tampa saw 183 emergency medical calls for people believed to have taken spice. In April there were 130.

Compare that to February, when there were 17.

Across the bay in Pinellas County, paramedics worked close to 350 suspected spice calls in March. There were noticeable peaks on specific days — in early March the county saw calls each day in the single digits, while in mid-month single-day totals reached into the 30s.

Why the spike? There are theories, but police and public health officials can't say for sure.

"We don't know if it's a bad batch," said Tampa police Maj. Keith O'Connor. "We're not seeing any common denominator."

What they are seeing are the people who use spice, unmistakable in their erraticism and growing in their numbers.

• • •

A man lay on his back in the grass beside the brick path in the center of Phil Bourquardez Park, two blocks west of the upscale Ulele restaurant, a block north of the Stetson Tampa Law Center. His eyes were pinched shut, the front of his gray tank top damp. Four paramedics stepped up carrying heart monitors and bags of medical supplies. They sat him up. They measured his blood pressure.

"Tell us your name," one medic said as the man's eyes fluttered open. He mumbled something and they asked again.

"Mikal," he said.

"McCall?"

They asked if he had ID. The man reached into a pocket. His fingers fumbled with a wallet, struggling to pull it open. A medic took it and inside found a bus pass with the name Mikal Sabr. He is 41.

"I smoked a cigarette," Sabr said, blinking his bleary eyes.

"I think you smoked more than a cigarette, partner."

A private ambulance pulled up. The medics put Sabr on a stretcher and hauled him away.

The cost every time a spice patient is treated in a city ambulance is $600, plus $10 per mile driven to the hospital.

Walk around downtown Tampa, or along Florida and Nebraska avenues in Tampa Heights, or in just about any other neighborhood where homeless tend to be, and you will see them. They aren't the only people who use spice, but they're the most visible segment.

Some fall asleep standing up. Some run around and scream. Some cling to chain link fences and try to fight when police come to check on them.

Ergin Tek noticed a difference a few months back. There have always been homeless people in the area near MTC Downtown Cafe, the small convenience shop Tek owns across from the Marion Street bus station. But lately, he said, the ones doing spice have caused problems.

"Three months ago, whatever it is they had, it turned them from a relaxed, chill homeless person to a zombie," Tek said. "Human zombies . . . I swear it reminds me of (the) 1980s Michael Jackson Thriller movie."

Tek said he rid his store of the tables and chairs that used to sit inside so that the spice users wouldn't come in and crash. He put a fence around his building to keep them away. Once, a man high on spice jumped through a store window and broke a coffee pot.

Every day, they pace the sidewalk in front of the business, smoking joints and waiting for dealers who ride bikes or stroll in from Tampa Heights. There are more up the road, near the Salvation Army and along Henderson Avenue, a gathering spot that some have dubbed Spice Alley.

"We seem to go to the same people over and over again in the same area," said Tampa Fire Rescue Lt. Jacob Knighton. "Generally they seem to be out of it from the time they first start smoking it until about 30 to 45 minutes later. . . . We get to the hospital, and the majority of the time, they stand up and they're out the door before we're out the door."

It's like this across the bay, too. In places like Williams Park and Unity Park in St. Petersburg, along Cleveland Street in downtown Clearwater, where paramedics routinely get called for reports of people passed out, people vomiting, people having seizures, the hallmarks of spice overdoses.

Among the homeless, spice is abundant. The reason most often cited is that it's cheap. People living on the street usually can scrounge a dollar or two for a single spice joint. A few dollars more can get them a whole packet of the leafy herbs.

That low cost is why spice is not exclusive to homeless people, either.

"Not only folks who can afford more expensive drugs, but also those who can't, use it," Peredy said. "I hate to pick on the homeless population. I think they're just being exposed because of the inexpensive cost."

It comes in attractive packages similar to candy wrappers emblazoned with names like "Green Giant" and "AK-47" and "Cloud 9 Mad Hatter," and "Diablo." The backs are usually marked with weight measures — 10 grams, 5 grams — and a disclaimer: "Not for human consumption. Must be 18 or older to purchase. Keep out of reach of children."

Until a few years ago, you could buy the various brands in convenience stores and smoke shops. State and federal authorities started cracking down in response to the drug's emerging popularity and threats to public health, making the different chemical formulas in it illegal.

The problem with spice is that those formulas are easy to tweak. Manufacturers can make small changes to the chemicals so that what they're selling is legal again.

For police, that makes it hard to go after sellers. For doctors, that makes it hard to figure out how prevalent spice is.

That's a problem, because spice can kill you.

• • •

The man lay sprawled on his back along a narrow picnic bench behind the courthouse annex in downtown Tampa. It was 10 minutes to 6 p.m. on April 13. He was already dead when the paramedics stepped across the gravel lot to the shuttle stop.

His name was Bob Fairman. He was 62.

He was a carnival worker who alternated between living with family in Ocala and in Michigan and homelessness on the streets of Tampa.

He kept a bank card, a McDonald's card and baby pictures of his six children in a storage locker he shared with Mike Moses. Both had been homeless for years. For Fairman, it was a lifestyle he chose, according to those who knew him.

Moses always stayed away from spice, he said.

"I'd have to find out I was dying before I'd smoke any of that," he said.

Fairman was a recovering alcoholic, his family said. He smoked marijuana.

"Sometimes he would smoke spice if someone had it," said his son, Michael Fairman. "I used to tell him all the time to stop smoking that stuff. It kills people."

Paramedics had found Bob Fairman earlier that day in the same spot. He told them he had heart problems. He said he had been smoking spice. They took him to Tampa General Hospital. Not long after, he was released.

It is difficult, though, to say with certainty that spice caused Fairman's death. Beyond any number of other medical problems users might suffer, the chemicals in spice are difficult to detect in standard toxicology tests. In Hillsborough County last year, spice was confirmed to have contributed to the death of just one person, according to the medical examiner's office. It is suspected in several other cases still pending, including Fairman's.

But making the determination can be as much of an art as it is a science. One telltale sign: a spice wrapper found near Fairman's head after he died.

• • •

The problem with spice is it's not going away. Any number of websites offer it as "herbal incense" and "potpourri," with wholesale brands available for as little as $24 a package. You can pick flavors: watermelon, strawberry, blueberry.

Last month, Gov. Rick Scott signed a bill outlawing dozens of variations of the chemical formulas found in spice and paving the way for police to make arrests for possession of similar drugs. But getting spice isn't difficult. Chemists tweak things again. Dealers still can buy it. It's as easy as having it shipped to your house.

"Every generation thinks they invented drug abuse," said Peredy, the medical director of Poison Information Center. "I think that as long as humans have stressors, they will always always look for solutions to those stressors, the easy way out, if you will.

"Drug abuse is here to stay. We need to educate people."

• • •

A woman with graying hair, a white T-shirt and torn jean shorts stepped up the sidewalk along Marion Street, toward a man who lay unconscious against a brick wall. She said her name was Red Jones.

"My main concern is they're all right," she said. She bent down and shook his shoulders. The man stirred.

"He's just tired," she said.

Jones, who said she lives downtown, told stories about people she has met downtown, people passing out and turning blue, people who throw themselves through windows, all while high on spice. As she spoke, the man awoke. She told him she was talking about spice.

"I got some right now," he said, lifting a joint. He handed it to her.

"I'm going back to marijuana," she said, taking a puff. "It's way safe."

Her face reddened. She lifted an arm to the wall to stay upright.

"It's getting crazy," she said. "And it's not getting any better."

Contact Dan Sullivan at dsullivan@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3386. Follow @TimesDan.

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