Crime & Justice

Rash of overdoses on Skid Row renews concerns about synthetic drug

A rash of overdoses on Skid Row has officials worried about synthetic marijuana use in the area.
A rash of overdoses on Skid Row has officials worried about synthetic marijuana use in the area.
Frank Stoltze

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At least 15 people ended up in the hospital this weekend from overdoses on Skid Row, raising fresh concerns about a relatively new drug. 

LAPD officials believe a bad batch of "spice" was the culprit. Spice is often referred to as  “synthetic marijuana” sprayed onto leaves of any sort – including basil. The leaves are then rolled into a cigarette and smoked, according to LAPD Lt. Andy Mathis, who works Skid Row.

Jeff Page, a community activist, said this past weekend on Skid Row was unlike any other he’d seen. Overdoses are common, he said, but they usually involve heroin and never happen en masse.

On Friday night at the corner of 5th and San Pedro, a series of overdoses struck, and kept piling on through Sunday. 

“This type of reaction has never happened before with one drug,” Page said. “People are dropping like flies.”

All 15 survived, fire officials said Monday. 

“It is an unusual occurrence,” said Los Angeles Fire Department Spokesman Peter Sanders. “Having three days in a row of this is also unusual.”

Spice, LAPD's Mathis said, is a growing concern in the area. 

“When you walk around Skid Row, there’s guys that will take a milk crate and just put single cigarettes on it and sell them for fifty cents a piece,” Mathis said.

“We’ve seen greater numbers of issues,” he said, as manufacturers add different chemicals to the spice. He said manufacturers change the chemicals to keep ahead of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's efforts to regulate it.

“Its far more dangerous than regular marijuana because of the different chemicals used,” he said. 

The laws treat the drug a lot like marijuana.

“It's in the same realm as regular marijuana, which is an infraction,” said Mathis. “So is it really illegal? Not really.”

Nonetheless Mathis said the LAPD’s Central Division, which patrols Skid Row, will crack down on  street sales in the coming days.

“So we are looking  at anyone involved in illegal activity on the sidewalk which is selling or any kind of vending," Mathis said, though he admits not much can be done to get rid of the drug.

The activist, Page, said he’s already seen people who overdosed Friday, back for more of the relatively cheap drug.

“What the hell is going on,” he asks. “Why are you guys still smoking that stuff because people are dropping all over the place.”