LOS ANGELES — Skid Row in Los Angeles has always been a place in dire need of help. Walking down the streets, you see broken tents, sprawled bodies, and varying levels of human suffering. Homeless people’s faces are painted with anguish. The infamous neighborhood is filled with some of the poorest people in the city, and drug use only exacerbates the problems facing the community.
For the past two years or so, Skid Row has faced a synthetic marijuana epidemic, and it’s hurting the people who need help the most.
“It’s in heavy usage,” Coach Ron, a community organizer in Skid Row, told The Daily Beast. “A lot of people like it. Personally I see it used. I see a lot of people will just smoke it freely, and it has a lot of popularity in certain parts of Skid Row.”
Coach Ron has seen how Spice or K2, popular names for synthetic marijuana, can devastate lives. Ron’s sister died from cardiac arrest last year because of a Spice overdose. Ron said his sister’s passing has made the fight against Spice very personal for him.
Ron believes people in Skid Row are using Spice to escape their problems, but it often causes more problems for them. “People are ODing and dying,” he said. He’s seen a lot of people who have depression, anger issues, or other problems using Spice as a reprieve.
“I believe they can get higher [with Spice] than they could with marijuana,” Ron said.
He said Spice makes you dysfunctional. “It can make you volatile. Clearly you’re disoriented and delusional, so you can’t have a conversation with these people.”
Fifteen people were recently hospitalized in Skid Row because they were using Spice. None of them died, luckily, but it remains a persisting problem. Outside of Los Angeles, homeless communities in New York and other cities have seen problems with homeless people dying from doing Spice.
Spice isn’t actually marijuana. Spice and other synthetic marijuana brands are dried plant material sprayed with various synthetic cannabinoids, and because it’s not regulated, no one knows what’s in one batch versus what’s in another. Some forms of it have been made illegal by the DEA, but producers often change the chemical makeup slightly to put out a drug that doesn’t technically match the profile of the illegal substances.
“Synthetic cannabinoids were invented by academic research scientists as well as those in the pharmaceutical industry in an effort to better understand how the endogenous cannabis system works within human body, as well as to develop new drugs,” William Scott Burgin, a professor at the University of South Florida’s College of Medicine Neurology, told The Daily Beast.
Burgin said synthetic cannabinoids can be hundreds of times more powerful than a regular marijuana flower, and he said most users say they would prefer to smoke regular marijuana over Spice. That said, Spice is typically much cheaper, and it’s pretty easy to find on the streets. A gram of Spice can sell for only a dollar.
Many people use Spice because it won’t show up on a drug test, and it’s actually close to impossible to test specifically for these substances. “There is not currently a robust, affordable, and readily available means to check individuals (for medical or legal purposes), nor samples for the presence of these compounds,” Burgin said.
Furthermore, these substances are often cut with other dangerous drugs, which can elevate the risks associated with taking them.
Stefanie Jones, the director of audience development at the Drug Policy Alliance, said legalizing and regulating marijuana would be one of the best ways to fix this problem. Regulated marijuana can be tested for potency and tracked, which can’t easily be done with a drug like Spice. And we already know most people who use it would rather be smoking real marijuana.
On top of changing marijuana laws, Jones believes simply addressing the issues in these communities that push people to drug use would help a lot. “The drug use is a symptom of how deeply problematic these people’s lives are,” she said.
And that’s one of the major problems with Skid Row. As someone who lives in Los Angeles, I know at least one-third of my friends don’t even know where Skid Row is. The community is largely ignored, and it suffers because of this. Coach Ron said if people just knew that Spice was causing so many problems in this community, they might want to actually do something about it. He said he doesn’t ever see people coming to help address the problem.
Ron also said that the Spice epidemic has caused the community problems beyond what it does to the people using it. “With the Spice epidemic, that kind of puts a dent on our outreach, because people think homeless people are all on Spice and could die or overdose,” he said. He and others work hard to defeat stereotypes around homelessness, but it’s harder to do that when everyone assumes homeless people are all on drugs.
When you ignore a large part of a city and let wounds fester, it’s not surprising when those wounds become infected.