Corey Harmon liked the thrill of the chase.
The 25-year-old inmate at Mobile County Metro Jail took his first hit of spice about four years ago because he was on probation at the time and the drug was undetectable by conventional tests, meaning he could get high without violating probation. He began to “chase the high” he felt with the drug, which is what made him continue to use it.
“It made me chase the high, like I’m wanting to get that same high back,” he said. “As long as I can get high, but not too high. It had me chasing that high.”
It seems you can barely turn on a television, pick up a newspaper or log on to the web without hearing about a spice bust or someone having an adverse reaction to the drug. Although spice is referred to as a marijuana analog, Harmon said the high is a lot different than marijuana, at least from his perspective.
“It wasn’t giving the mellow high of like weed, like your whole body be high,” he said. “It’s just like my face be high. I could feel the high in my face. It’s like my face got numb.”
At first, Harmon didn’t feel the more serious effects of spice use, but after years of smoking it day after day, he started to hallucinate after taking hits.
“It’s like it would take my 3-D vision away from me. I had 2-D vision,” Harmon said. “Everything was flat, like ‘Scooby-Doo’ the movie, I was visualizing (everyone) looked like them.”
In another hallucination, Harmon was at work at a shipyard, as he watched everything in his field of vision suddenly begin to shrink.
“Everything that was materialistic was getting small in front of my eyes,” he said. “Like the water and the grass and the trees were the only things not getting small.”
After that he said he started to experience tunnel vision and was forced to lie down to prevent blacking out.
He said the drug began to affect his appearance. Harmon said the effects of the drug on the way he looked was similar to crack cocaine.
“It looked like I was skinny. I’m talking about I wasn’t myself,” Harmon said. “I just wasn’t paying attention to my body at all. It was killing me.”
Harmon, who has been in Mobile County Metro Jail the last 14 months and is facing five, first-degree felony charges, said he’d never smoke the stuff again. He called it scary.
Yeah it’s dangerous,” Harmon said. “I ain’t going to smoke it no more.”
Education on the more serious effects of spice has been released in recent months following a rash of emergency room visits and even a few deaths attributed to the drug.
In April, the Mobile Fire-Rescue Department responded to a high frequency of calls related to bad spice reactions. The department responded to 25 similar calls in two weeks during April and only had two calls in March.
Local hospital emergency rooms, in April, saw a spike in drug-related visits, according to numbers provided by Mobile County Health Department spokeswoman Cassandra Andrews. The emergency rooms at USA Medical Center, Springhill Medical Center, Mobile Infirmary and Providence Hospital had a total of 52 drug-related ER visits from April 11 to April 23, she wrote in a statement, although it’s unclear how many of those visits were specifically spice-related because ER doctors and nurses rely on patients to tell them about illicit drug use.
The first 13 days of May saw 44 people treated at local ERs for drug-related issues, according to the statement.
Two of those April ER visits belonged to a 29-year-old female jail inmate, who requested anonymity. She said she had been smoking the drug, which she calls “mojo,” for about four years. Like Harmon, she started on the drug to avoid violating probation.
In April, she remembers smoking a product from a package with the name Dr. Climax. She said she began feeling funny.
“I started smoking it and my lips felt hot,” she said. “The top of my mouth started burning, so I was like maybe I’m just tripping, so I kept on smoking it. All of a sudden I started feeling weird and I started tripping.”
She was vomiting and had breathing problems when her boyfriend drove her to the Mobile Infirmary emergency room.
“The doctor told me there was Raid on the mojo,” she said, referring to the popular roach spray.
Soon after a second visit to the hospital, she said she was picked up on a probation violation, after getting into an argument with her boyfriend. She experienced hallucinations soon after arriving at the jail.
Jail staff put her in the F Wedge, a portion of the jail designated for mentally ill inmates.
“The whole time I was there I was dreaming,” she said. “I was seeing crazy stuff.”
The hallucinations came on as a result of withdrawal symptoms, she said.
“I couldn’t get the mojo no more, so it started coming out of my body,” she said. “I was seeing stuff. I really thought I was seeing my sister.
“I thought my sister was one of the guard officers,” she added. “I was just loony up there. I was so messed up I didn’t know what was going on.”
She said the symptoms lasted for a week or two and then faded. The experience was enough for her to swear off the drug for good, upon her release from jail later this month.
Mobile County Health Officer Dr. Bernard Eichold said patients suffering from reactions to spice don’t always present the same symptoms, so it’s sometimes hard to determine what’s wrong at first.
“They don’t present with a traditional pattern,” Eichold said. “Some present with a fast heartbeat, some have hallucinations and some have a slow heartbeat. There’s no true pattern.”
The physical effects of the drug largely depend on the chemicals used, but one chemical that was used in the early days of spice production, JWH 018, is so dangerous it’s listed as toxic poison on its material safety data sheet, provided by the Drug Education Council. Named for the initials of the chemist who developed it, JWH 018, is “highly flammable and cannot be made nonpoisonous.”
It is irritating to eyes, the respiratory system and skin. It has harmful vapors and is harmful if swallowed, inhaled, or absorbed through the skin.
Virginia Guy, executive director of the Drug Education Council, said this particular chemical compound was first developed to alter the brain activity of lab animals for research.
“There have been some instances where law enforcement have had to be treated for exposure to it,” Guy said.
Production of the illegal substance started exclusively in China, where the first chemical compounds were created, but some manufacturing has made its way to the U.S., said Mobile Police Chief James Barber. The bulk of it, however, is still coming in from overseas, despite it getting harder to import spice into the country.
“We’re seeing the beginning of a shift away from manufacturing overseas,” Barber said. “The U.S. is the emerging producer.”
Production consists of leaves and herbs, like tea leaves, a chemical compound and packaging, he said. In some cases now, in the U.S., the ingredients are purchased separately and then mixed together before they’re sold. Barber said roach spray, like Raid, is sometimes used as the chemical that is sprayed over the leaves to help producers avoid detection from law enforcement.
“There’s nothing wrong with having Raid in your house,” Barber said. “There’s nothing wrong with having tea leaves in your house and there’s nothing wrong with having the empty packaging in your house, but all together it’s a problem for us.”
Both Barber and Mobile County Sheriff Sam Cochran explained the U.S. spice production process, as special guests at a Mobile United meeting last month. Both men told the group that production starts once the ingredients have been purchased.
They said producers spread the leaves out in a bathtub at home, or in a hotel room and spray the chemical on the leaves, sometimes haphazardly.
Guy said it’s this form of production that has caused the increase in ER visits locally.
“There’s not a lot of quality control in the assembly of these drugs,” she said. “That’s one of the things that is really dangerous because they’re putting it on screens and spraying it with the chemicals. You may get a lot of spray.”
When it first hit the area in 2010, spice was legal and remains legal in some states. When it was legally on the market it was sold over the counter in convenience stores, but has since been outlawed by the Alabama Legislature, although it wasn’t an easy process, Cochran said.
Since 2010, the legislature has struggled to keep up with technology and each time a chemical compound would be outlawed producers of the drug would make a change to the chemical compound, thus making it legal again, Cochran said. In all, the legislature banned 35 different chemical compounds, Cochran said, before recently passing a law banning any substance that caused a reaction in the same receptors in the brain that are sensitive to tetrahydrocannabinol, found in cannabis.
“I’m very impressed with our legislature,” Guy said. “I think it’s one of the few. I know none of our neighboring states have any kind of legislation like that. I think that’s significant.”
Now that’s its illegal in any form throughout the state, the street sale of it has increased, which means violence related to sale of spice has also increased in the area, Cochran said.
“As we clamped down on convenience stores, spice is being provided by street corner drug dealers,” Cochran said. “They are the ones getting violent over profits. I don’t know if we created a bigger problem by shutting it down.”
Spice is a popular drug on the streets because at $7 a gram, it’s cheaper than marijuana, Barber said, although he didn’t know the exact street value.
“Marijuana is a little bit more expensive and less easy to get,” he said.
Barber compared spice to crack cocaine in the 1980s because it’s a cheap drug on the street level.
The idea of profits have made some convenience stores slow to comply with the new law making all spice illegal, Barber said. He added that he’s working with the Mobile City Council to pass an ordinance that would allow him to pull the license of any business known to sell spice. As the law stands now it takes 10 to 14 days to do so.
In some cases, Cochran said, business owners have employees who sell the drug at a store without their knowledge. Barber said spice users could purchase the drug at a store by giving a code word.
Another problem facing local law enforcement in shutting down spice in the area is the two major highways in the area. Interstates 10 and 65 give traffickers of spice routes to many parts of the country, Guy said.
“Historically I-10 and I-65 have been major drug corridors in the U.S. and since Mobile is at the intersection of those anything traveling from Mexico or Texas to Florida or anything traveling here up to Chicago has been part of the historical drug trade,” she said. “When this goes into street-level drug trade it does follow those kind of routes.”
Spice has users from all age groups, from middle-school-age to seniors, Guy said.
“It’s really crossed all demographics,” she said. “When we first started hearing about it, it was probably in the 18-to-30-year-old group, but now we’re hearing about young kids.”
She said there was at least one case where a 60-year-old was hospitalized for a bad spice reaction.
It’s also marketed to all different age groups, Barber said. Some of the packages are made to look like normal kid-friendly snacks, like Skittles, Barber said. In a recent bust the MPD recovered spice packages with the characters from the popular application “Angry Birds.”
Guy said it’s this packaging that makes it attractive to younger kids and makes it harder for parents to tell it apart from candy.
“I want parents to know there are lots of snacks and different things that come packaged that are very similar to that, so I want parents, educators and youth group leaders to know how to recognize it,” Guy said. “You could be going through a book bag and see these packages. It doesn’t look like traditional drugs or drug paraphernalia that parents would recognize. It’s foil packages that are sealed that look a little like snack packs.”
Guy said she wanted to let parents and kids know spice isn’t a type of synthetic marijuana, but is poison.
“When it is referred to as fake weed, or synthetic marijuana that lends kids to believe it’s fake something,” she said. “It’s not fake anything, it’s synthetic poison. That’s what I want kids to know.”