A bad batch of Spice is believed to be the reason 28 people were hospitalized for seizures this weekend, leading to the raid of a local smoke shop and sending Gainesville residents reeling.
Spice is an illegal and highly toxic synthetic marijuana that can be bought at convenience stores and smoke shops.
The rapidly accumulating number of seizure patients caused the Alachua County Health Department to post on Facebook on Friday warning of the toxic drug. Since then, the health department has begun an investigation on the chemical components in the batch to see what might have caused the reaction.
“I don’t recall having this number of cases in such a short amount of time, and that is why the Alachua County Health Department is getting involved,” said Paul Myers, Alachua County Health Department director.
Patients admitted to local hospitals had experienced seizures and were in altered mental states. Some of the patients even had to be intubated. But not all patients seized. One case that didn’t result in hospitalization just involved vomiting and diarrhea.
Between Friday and Saturday, the number of cases had jumped from 11 to more than two dozen, and by Monday afternoon the number reached 28.
Gainesville-Alachua County Drug Task Force raided Land B4 Time, 604 N. Main Street, on Saturday morning in conjunction with the seizures. As of press time, the store has remained closed, and the phone number for the store is disconnected.
Drug task force members seized several pounds of Spice, $2,000 in cash, pipes and a shotgun during the raid, said GPD spokesman Ben Tobias.
Spice has been illegal in Florida since March 2012, but distributors skirt the legal issue by changing the chemical composition of the drug and marking it “not for consumption.”
“To the outsider, we should just be able to look on the package and see that it’s “Spice,” but it unfortunately is not that easy,” Tobias said.
While the active ingredient in weed, Tetrahydrocannabinol, occurs naturally, Spice is typically a collection of herbs sprayed with lab-created cannabinoids.
“The seizure is more likely caused by synthetic cannabinoid, which is not like THC, which is what you get from the cannabis plant,” said Jamie Solen, associate professor in the department of psychiatry.
“The THC you smoke and inhale has its own ability to prevent seizures and its own innate ability to prevent the psychosis and delusional state” that has been seen in the Spice patients, he said.
The synthetic cannabinoid has a stronger effect than THC.
Two cannabinoid receptors in the brain absorb the active ingredient in marijuana or Spice. THC only partially stimulates the brain once absorbed, but the synthetic cannabinoids found in Spice turn the receptor on full blast, Solen said.
This causes the neurons in the brain to overcharge with electricity, and the electrical explosion in the brain causes muscles to seize up, Solen said.
The synthetic cannabinoid can also cause an increase in blood pressure to a hypertensive rate, rapid heart beat almost to the state of a heart attack, hallucinations and vomiting.
“It really impairs you if you smoke too much,” said a UF sophomore who asked not be named. “Personally, it got me really head high to the point where, if I tried to move, at times I would get a migraine.”
Users are drawn to the synthetic drug by low prices and the promise of a better high, he said.
“I heard that it got you ‘higher’ than regular weed and it ended up being much cheaper too so I figured I'd try it. I only stopped after one of my friends had a terrible trip, and I saw what it could do to him,” the 19-year-old said. “I haven’t smoked it since. I don’t ever plan on smoking it again.”
[A version of this story ran on page 1 - 4 on 6/3/2014 under the headline "Bad batch of Spice hospitalizes 28 in Gainesville"]