EL PASO — Doctors confirmed earlier this year that 19-year-old Alberto Guerrero had overdosed on an unknown substance that damaged his cardiac and respiratory systems.
After weeks of tests, Guerrero was told that something was attacking the muscle cells that contract his heart and lungs. He was told he had about a year to live, then given a bottle of pain killers and sent home. Three months later he died.
Before his death, he confessed to his mother and a doctor that he was addicted to a drug called Spice, a synthetic marijuana that is highly addictive and may cause death. Spice became popular about five years ago among young people, including those in the military. At the time, many users considered it a safe and legal alternative to marijuana.
Even after users began experiencing harmful effects – including blackouts and seizures leading the Drug Enforcement Administration to outlaw some chemicals used to make it – the use of the illegal substance continues to pose a problem at national and local levels. Spice, K2 and Synthetic Marijuana are a few different titles for this drug, which is made to mimic the effects of THC, the main active ingredient of marijuana. Synthetic cannabinoids are often sold as herbal incense or potpourri.
The DEA’s drug fact sheet describes products like Spice as “not being organic but are chemical compounds created in a laboratory. Since 2009, law enforcement has encountered approximately 95 different synthetic cannabinoids that are being sold as ‘legal’ alternatives to marijuana. These products are being abused for their psychoactive properties and are packaged without information as to their health and safety risks.”
Adriana Escajeda, 21, a UTEP student, said she got a glimpse last February of what Spice is capable of doing to users when her cousin ended up in the hospital after using Spice.
“I was picked up by my aunt after she had called the ambulance. When we arrived at my cousin’s home he was on the floor twitching,” she said. “His body was bending in such a way and (with such) force that we could not help him. He was taken to the hospital where he lay in a coma for three days. Doctors found no trace of drugs in his system and told his father it was an epilepsy attack but when I spoke to my cousin he told me he had overdosed on Spice.”
In October of this year, the Las Cruces Sun-News reported that a dangerous batch of Spice was on the streets of Las Cruces, sending many users to emergency rooms. The story quoted Anita Rockett, spokesperson from Memorial Medical Center, and Dr. Michael Borunda, medical director of the Emergency Department at Mountain View Regional Medical Center, confirming that there has been a significant increase in Spice overdoses.
The AAPCC (American Association of Poison Control Center) reported 2,365 exposures to synthetic marijuana nationwide from Jan. 1 to April 29 of this year. By Nov. 31 the number of exposures to Spice had increased to 7,369 according to the AAPCC. The national organization has ranked states based on reported exposures. Texas came in third with a total of 638 reported cases; Mississippi was second with 1,347; and New York had the highest number of cases with 1,670.
In the month of October, the AAPCC reported 54 calls in the state of Texas and 44 calls in November from Spice users or others requesting information about the drug. The West Texas Regional Poison Center reported 38 cases of individuals from El Paso who had used the drug and experienced harmful reactions, but that may not reflect the true level of usage and harm.
“One thing to keep in mind is this data does have a few significant limitations,” said Salvador Baeza, director of the West Texas Regional Poison Center.
He explained that in addition to the cases of Spice use that are reported to the poison center, a majority of cases where users have harmful after effects are “never going to get reported, especially if an ER physician and nursing staff are comfortable treating the patients without the center’s guidance.”
Although Guerrero’s family is convinced that Spice contributed to his early death, they now also suspect he may have suffered from a disease called Pulmonary Hypertension. Their younger son, Alberto’s brother, was recently diagnosed with this disease after falling ill with symptoms similar to Alberto’s. They now believe Alberto also suffered from undiagnosed Pulmonary Hypertension which was aggravated by his addiction to Spice.
El Paso’s Deputy Medical Examiner Janice Diaz said “there have been many deaths thought to be related to synthetic cannabinoids but no link can be found. El Paso is no exception. This year there were several deaths that were suspected to be caused by synthetic cannabinoids, but the toxicology came back negative. Each brand (of Spice) contains different substances as the manufacturing of these drugs is obviously not regulated. This has made it difficult to create laboratory assays (investigative testing) for the many types of this drug.”
El Paso Police Detective Mike Baranyay said police have a difficult time when they try to arrest a Spice user for illegal possession, “because so many chemicals make up or can be considered Spice. We in law enforcement have a hard time keeping up, and lawmakers have an equally hard time outlawing the new substances as they pop up.”
An open records request to the El Paso Police Department found 33 Spice-related cases between 2013 and 2015 involving synthetic cannabinoids. So far this year, police have handled 18 cases involving synthetic cannabinoids.
El Paso resident Ruth Rivas said she is still trying to cope the loss of her son 28-year-old Adam Hernandez. An eight-year veteran of the Navy, he became addicted to Spice and committed suicide June 20, 2012. She said while using the drug her son began suffering panic attacks and became bipolar. In 2013 Rivas began the nonprofit organization “Spice is not Nice.” Her mission in life and through the organization she founded is to make sure people are informed about the dangers of Spice.
”When people are approached about this drug I want them to know about it because I want them to make an educated choice. We’ve all heard of Spice but we don’t know about Spice.”
Justine Ortiz, 18, said she used Spice for some time but decided to quit because she didn’t like the effects.
“When I began smoking Spice the effects were not that strong. Later they came up with stronger version and I would go on really bad trips. I would hallucinate and have really bad paranoia. It was an ugly feeling.”
Her boyfriend, a marijuana user, began using Spice because it was cheaper, easier to get, the high was stronger and lasted longer.
After she stopped using the drug, she got him to quit cold turkey. For the first three days, he couldn’t sleep or eat, she said. On the fourth day, he began throwing up a greenish-yellow liquid and then began throwing up blood.
“We took him to the hospital and there they said he could’ve died if he hadn’t gone in,” Ortiz said.
“It’s the withdrawals that are bad; you get them within an hour of not having it (Spice) and it makes you think you need Spice for everything to eat, sleep, to function daily.”
Parents wanting to test their children for Spice use can find testing kits at various online marketplaces such as Amazon.com which offer single or multi-pack options. SpiceisNotNice.org has compiled their own kit to help parents deal with situations having to do with drug abuse and Spice use. The EduKit includes Rivas’ book titled Listen. Learn. and Live – Revealing the Ugly truth about Spice along with an in-home drug test. The drug test can test for 12 different drugs (methadone, oxycodone, barbiturates…and spice) for $29.95. If your child tests positive for any drug or you suspect your child might be using drugs the website provides a panic button that will connect you with helpful resources.
UMC’s West Texas Regional Poison Center is available 24/7 at: 1-800-222-1222.