K2. Spice. Black Mamba. Research chemicals. Potpourri. New psychoactive substances.
The drug that grabbed Alejandro and wouldn’t let go has many names. Just don’t call it fake weed, Alejandro says. It’s nothing like weed.
“It just eats at your body and there’s nothing you can really do about it. And once you get on it, it’s the hardest thing to get off. It’s so easy to find—that’s the scariest part of it,” said Alejandro, 20, who’s been sober for about six months.
“And then you never, ever know what’s in it. You can buy one bag one day and it’s this, and the next day you might think it’s the same thing, but that’ll be the bag that kills you because it’s not the same thing,” he said.
Alejandro is sharing his story with GLT as central Illinois grapples with a dangerous new outbreak of contaminated spice that’s already killed four people and sickened 160 others. Tazewell and Peoria counties have been especially hard-hit, accounting for more than half of the state’s 164 cases since March. McLean County has seen one case so far, according to the Illinois Department of Public Health.
Alejandro first used spice five years ago, around age 15. He spent most of his teenage years on the streets in Bloomington-Normal, bouncing from couch to couch or living under bridges after a falling out with his caregivers, he said. He was kicked out of his high school and got caught up in a bad crowd, he said.
He smoked weed by age 12. He’s been addicted to meth. But spice—typically smoked—is a special kind of scary, Alejandro says. For someone like Alejandro trying to escape their everyday life, spice could do that.
“It just puts you in a whole different world. It scared me. My whole surroundings changed because I wasn’t in the actual present,” Alejandro said.
Its deceptive names are part of its danger. It’s commonly referred to as “synthetic marijuana” or fake weed, sometimes even marketed as safe, legal alternatives to pot.
But pot doesn’t cause severe bleeding like the current strain of tainted spice. Numerous spice users have tested positive for brodifacoum, a lethal anticoagulant often used in rat poison, state officials say.
Like marijuana, spice is easy to find.
“Whatever street you’re on, go to the corner. You’re gonna find it. No matter what side of town you’re on. Everyone was getting their hands on it. It was the cheap thing to smoke to get high. And then it just took over everybody,” Alejandro said.
What is spice exactly?
“They will literally take a clump of grass and just spray chemicals over it,” said Bryan Hinman, court treatment coordinator at Chestnut Health Systems in Bloomington. “And so you’ll have some parts that are not touched, some parts just a little bit, and some super-concentrated. It’s really dangerous.”
For users, the reaction can vary widely, but it’s a much different experience than traditional marijuana, experts say.
The McLean County jail has seen an uptick recently of inmates coming in with drug-induced psychosis because of spice, said Jacqueline Mathias, inmate specialist and counselor. The reactions can be severe, she said.
“It’s anything from regular withdrawals, like feeling sick, and lately it’s more psychosis. Seeing things. Not in reality. Not sleeping. Not eating. We have to really monitor and watch that, because it can be deadly,” Mathias said.
Spice has been on Bloomington Police’s radar since the early 2000s, back when it was called potpourri, said police spokesperson Elias Mendiola. It was first outlawed in Illinois in 2011, and police made subsequent busts at gas stations and tobacco shops that were still selling it, Mendiola said. The department is still making spice busts today; three Bloomington-Normal residents were arrested in early May on drug charges, as police found nine baggies of spice.
A challenge for law enforcement is that those making spice can alter the formula to avoid bans on certain chemicals, he said. That makes it harder for police to run quick field tests to figure out what’s illegal and what’s not.
“When officers are making that seizure on the streets, we’re still having to send that off to the state lab. And then the state lab, it’s about two months until we actually get the (results) back as being, ‘OK, is this illegal? Has this already been designated on your list as a controlled substance or not?’” Mendiola said.
Responding to this current outbreak, a catch-all bill passed the state Senate last week that would ban all types of synthetic cannabinoids instead of just specific formulas.
A breakdown of contaminated spice cases throughout Illinois, according to the Illinois Department of Public Health:
The flexible chemistry is one of the reasons spice is so popular with drug users.
Alejandro fell into that trap himself. When he was first admitted to the McLean County drug court program last year, he thought he could keep using spice because he heard it didn’t show up on drug tests. Turns out, it does.
“I fooled myself with that one,” Alejandro said.
This outbreak of tainted spice is part of a larger wave of synthetic drug manufacturing, said Ralph Weisheit, a distinguished professor of criminal justice at Illinois State University. The synthetic opioid fentanyl is another example.
“With these laboratory chemicals, you can set them up anywhere. Detection gets harder. The number of new possible drugs is beyond counting. It’s really a new era,” he said. “We’re just beginning to see a problem that’s going to be really hard to deal with.”
Authorities are trying to make inroads. Tazewell County prosecutors charged Lonnie K. Smith of Pekin with drug-induced homicide (a Class X felony) and other charges last month after the death of Anthony Phillips, 46, on April 9. Phillips is one of four people who have died in the current outbreak of contaminated spice.
Pekin Police seized more than 7,000 grams of spice that tested positive for a banned chemical. Smith allegedly delivered a package of spice with the street name “Diablo” to Phillips before he began vomiting blood and later died at a hospital.
“The distribution of these illegal drugs represent an unacceptable risk to public safety, and dealers must be held criminally responsible for their conduct,” Tazewell County State’s Attorney Stewart Umholtz said.
Arrests like that will make it harder for potential users like Alejandro to access spice.
Alejandro has been sober since Nov. 5, 2017. He’s got two kids, including a 1-month-old son.
“They’re the biggest motivations for me,” he said.
After six years on the streets, Alejandro has a stable place to live now, and a job where he thinks he might become a supervisor soon. And he’s a bit of a songwriter too. He recently recorded his first song.
The difference-maker is that he was admitted (after being arrested on drug charges) in September 2017 to the McLean County drug court, a specialized, problem-solving court for nonviolent offenders with a substance abuse addiction and a likelihood for rehabilitation.
Alejandro is one of the youngest people in the program. (GLT is not using his last name to protect his identity.)
“Honestly, you have to have a commitment to changing. Drug court is not easy to get into, or easy to complete. It takes complete motivation. And you’ve gotta be dedicated to it,” he said.
Hinman, the staffer at Chestnut Health Systems, works with clients like Alejandro who are part of the drug and recovery court programs.
“An important focus when we’re looking at these stories about spice—they can be scary, the side effects, and people using them, the deaths from them. But it’s important to look at the root causes of why people are using these chemicals. And that something that gets missed.”
For those with addiction issues, there is a lack of housing, medical services, and mental health care in Bloomington-Normal, Hinman said.
“That’s going to push people to look for something else to take care of them.”
People like you value experienced, knowledgeable and award-winning journalism that covers meaningful stories in Bloomington-Normal. To support more stories and interviews like this one, please consider making a contribution.