Parishioners and clergy at the south side’s St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church see first-hand the affects of “spice,” the addictive synthetic marijuana sold in the smoke shops and on the streets near the church.
Addicts, most hooked on the cheap drug sold in small packets, walk like zombies in the morning to the church’s social services center — Casa San Juan — looking for handouts of food and water. Once they are helped, church officials ask them to leave to help prevent problems from arising.
“They are mostly men, sometimes women, between the ages of 18 to 40, who live on the streets,” said Msgr. Raúl Trevizo, pastor of the church. Some occasionally show up with bruises, probably from fighting or falling down because of their altered state during their high, he said.
Trevizo said he and parishioners are hosting a public meeting Aug. 16 at 7 p.m. inside the church, 602 W. Ajo Way, to talk about the issue, brought to light last month when the Drug Enforcement Administration, Tucson police and several other law enforcement agencies raided businesses and homes as part of a multi-city investigation into the sale of the synthetic cannabinoids. At least 18 people were arrested in Tucson and two other cities.
“This is a societal problem, and we must show compassion and treat those who are addicted with dignity and respect,” said Trevizo, who has invited Tucson police officers and firefighters to share their experiences and knowledge about spice addiction.
Cops and firefighters respond to numerous calls of spice overdoses in the area, including the bus stops near the church, authorities said.
Assistant Police Chief Ramon Batista, who oversees patrol officers, said spice overdoses have officers responding often to the business district downtown where sales are commonplace. The Ronstadt and Laos transit centers also attract sellers and buyers of spice.
“It is amazing what this drug does to people,” said Batista, who grew up on Tucson’s south side, attending St. John the Evangelist Catholic School, and then graduating from Salpointe Catholic High School.
“You feel bad because they are totally out of it. They do look like walking zombies.”
“Some go into convulsions, vomit, are violent. ... Some become comatose,” said Batista, who rides with patrol officers at times.
“Officers will respond to one overdose, and then will see two or three others overdosing around them.”
Batista remembered meeting a single mother who wept as she spoke about her 13-year-old son who was hooked on spice. “He no longer cared about anything or anyone. He just laid around, looking like a zombie,” recalled Batista of the mother’s story.
“It was heartbreaking,” said Batista, who directed the mother to social services agencies for detox programs. He said it is important for families and schools to educate youth about the dangers of the drug, which is a national problem.
Tucson police officers responded to 930 calls for service involving spice across the city, but primarily downtown and on the south side, from Jan. 1, 2015 to June 30, 2016, Batista said.
Since May 1, the Tucson Fire Department has responded to 192 calls for spice overdoses, said Capt. Barrett Baker, department spokesman.
Dr. Francisco Garcia, director of the Pima County Health Department, is working with police to get a handle on the effects of spice for emergency rooms and emergency-services providers, Police Chief Chris Magnus said in a recent report to Mayor Jonathan Rothschild and the City Council.
Synthetic marijuana is often sold as “incense” or “potpourri” and labeled “not for human consumption” to get around drug laws. Not all brands are illegal — it depends on the compounds used in the manufacturing of the product.
Spice is a mixture of herbs, spices or shredded plant material that is typically sprayed with a synthetic compound chemically similar to THC, the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana. The effects can be up to 200 times stronger than THC.
It’s commonly sold in smoke shops, small neighborhood stores and gas stations.
“I would like to see the smoke shops restricted in what they sell and the hours they are open,” Trevizo said.
There are at least eight smoke shops on South 12th Avenue between West Ajo Way and West Valencia Road, an area that also includes at least three elementary schools and one high school. There also are smoke shops on South Sixth Avenue.
“There is a spice epidemic in the city, and no doubt we have a saturation of smoke shops,” said City Councilman Richard Fimbres about his ward, which covers the south side. At the Sept. 7 council meeting, Fimbres, along with council members Regina Romero and Steve Kozachik, are scheduled to discuss a measure to give police the ability to stop the sale of spice and spice-related products.
Fimbres said spice is also being sold from businesses, houses and at Santa Rita Park on South Fourth Avenue and East 22nd Street, in addition to the Ronstadt and Laos transit centers. He said the recent raid targeting spice sales on Tucson’s south side has helped curb the problem.
Meanwhile, spice addicts who show up in the morning for food and water at Casa San Juan are asked to leave once they get their fill, said Trevizo, who is aware that spice can cause hallucinations and make a person turn violent or suicidal. Parishioners are told not to give panhandlers around the church money because they will use it to buy drugs.
Trevizo said the parish school has hired two security guards because up to 1,000 children can be at the school, either for academic or catechism classes.
“We have concerns about the physical and mental condition in which young people on the streets find themselves in when using spice,” said Trevizo. “We need to look at the safety of the community.
“We also need to look at the humanitarian side. These young people are being poisoned.
“As a society, we simply cannot allow them to waste away,” Trevizo said.