MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
The synthetic drug called spice is cheap. It gives a powerful, sometimes deadly high. Dozens of people who smoked spice were taken to the hospital with serious health problems this week alone in Anchorage, Alaska. Lisa Sauder has been seeing the effects of that firsthand. She's executive director of Bean's Cafe, which provides food and day shelter to the homeless in Anchorage, and she joins me now. Welcome to the program.
LISA SAUDER: Thank you.
BLOCK: And Lisa, I know you had an especially bad day at your soup kitchen on Wednesday. This was during a memorial service for seven of your clients who have died on the streets in recent weeks. What happened during that memorial service?
SAUDER: Well, both proceeding, during and immediately following the memorial service, we had a total of 12 clients who were transferred via ambulance for what we believe to be spice-related complications and illnesses. Many of them were unresponsive. Some were complaining of chest pain. It was a very frightening situation.
BLOCK: And this happened just one after another?
SAUDER: Yes, typically in groups of twos and threes. Many people were, we believe, sharing the drug. So you would have maybe two or three people become unresponsive at the same time.
BLOCK: What were you thinking when that was happening?
SAUDER: It was one of the scariest things I've ever seen. The response from our staff, from the fire department, 10 or 12 EMTs and firefighters, working alongside our staff of five or six that were literally running from person to person checking people. It was a beautiful, sunny day in Anchorage. Many people were lounging on the grass, relaxing and enjoying. But when you looked out across the campus in the surrounding neighborhood, you couldn't tell who was unresponsive and who was just enjoying a sunny day.
BLOCK: And we mentioned this was around a memorial service that you were having. The clients who had died - seven of them in recent weeks - were these deaths that were related to spice? These were people who died on the streets, homeless people.
SAUDER: Yes. At this point, we don't know if the seven deaths were directly related to spice. We can't confirm that right now. We are working very closely with the Anchorage Police Department, and the state is investigating it as well. I think when you look at, though, the death of seven homeless people in one community when we're having the nicest summer on record - to lose seven people in January would be highly unusual for us. To lose seven people in July and August is unheard of.
BLOCK: What do the people whom you deal with at the shelter tell you about the pull of this drug and why it's so appealing and so addictive?
SAUDER: Part of it is that it's a very inexpensive street drug. It's easily attainable and until, you know, a year or so ago, it was legal. A lot of people just think, well, it's synthetic marijuana. How bad can it be? But what we understand is that just regular spice can be 100 times more powerful than natural marijuana. And what we were seeing, we believe, recently, was something that would be called loaded spice, where they take the spice and they either dip it or add something else to it, which can range from embalming fluid to other highly toxic chemicals.
BLOCK: Well, how do you handle that at the soup kitchen? What do you tell people who come to you about the dangers of what they're doing?
SAUDER: Well, we've been really reinforcing with our clients. And also, the messaging has been coming through the police department and through the police chaplains that participated in our memorial service on Wednesday is just to tell the clients don't use it, don't try it, don't smoke it. Even if you've used it in the past and not had problems, we don't know what is contained in this batch that's currently on the street, but we're very concerned.
Our approach has also been to try and really open the doors for our community partners to come down and increase the access to services for our clients. We know many of them are scared. We're hoping that some of them will take a hard look at where they're at today and what changes they can make to put themselves in a better place or a better position.
BLOCK: Lisa Sauder, thanks for talking with us.
SAUDER: Thank you so much.
BLOCK: Lisa Sauder is executive director of Bean's Cafe in Anchorage, Alaska. We were talking about a recent string of health emergencies related to the synthetic drug spice.
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