The hallucinogenic substance that allegedly was smoked by the driver in a fatal crash in Cayucos on Saturday is available at smoke shops around the county, a sheriff’s narcotics officer said.
Detective Nick Fontecchio said that the synthetic marijuana referred to as “spice” or “K2” is commonly sold in smoke shops and most variations of the designer drug are legal. Spice has an effect that’s stronger than marijuana, Fontecchio said, and can make people both “sedated and cranky.”
Some health agencies have warned of severe reactions to the drug that have sent people to emergency rooms for treatment.
According to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, spice is a mix of herbs and spices typically sprayed with a synthetic compound chemically similar to THC, the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana.
The drug is usually smoked in joints or pipes, though some users put it in tea, and its psychological effects are similar to marijuana, with possible “paranoia, panic attacks and giddiness,” the DEA website said.
The National Institute on Drug Abuse, a federal research institute, said spice abusers who have been taken to Poison Control Centers have shown symptoms of “rapid heart rate, vomiting, agitation, confusion, and hallucinations.”
“Spice can also raise blood pressure and cause reduced blood supply to the heart, and in a few cases it has been associated with heart attacks,” according to the institute.
Specific formulas of spice have been federally banned, but manufacturers often alter the chemical makeup slightly, making the cases extremely difficult to prosecute.
The Federal Analogue Act allows any chemical that is “substantially similar” to a federally-controlled narcotic to be treated as if it were a controlled drug. But prosecuting those cases can be difficult and law enforcement officials often don’t pursue them, Fontecchio said.
“They have to be sent to the lab, and you can get something that’s a molecule off and that can change the whole prosecution,” Fontecchio said. “And a lot of the sellers of these drugs put on the package ‘not for human consumption’ so they can say they weren’t selling it for people to consume.”
The driver of the SUV in the fatal wreck, Tanner Mengore, reportedly told arresting CHP officers that he had smoked spice before driving with four other people when he lost control of the vehicle.
Two passengers — 22-month-old Mason Simmonds-Gibson of Los Osos, and the toddler’s uncle, 17-year-old Simon Alberto Brito of Morro Bay — were killed. Two others, Wendi Brito and Michael Brito, suffered major injuries. Wendi remained in critical condition and Michael was in fair condition Tuesday night at Sierra Vista Regional Medical Center.
Mengore was a friend of the Britos, all siblings, and the toddler was their nephew. Mengore, the only one in the car wearing a safety belt, suffered minor injuries and has been charged with gross vehicular manslaughter and felony DUI.
Everyone in the car, with the exception of the baby boy, had been smoking spice, CHP officer Richard Lee said Monday.
Lee said the group went to a Cambria smoke shop to get the substance. The specific shop hasn’t been named.
Mona Atoush, manager of Paradise Smoke Shop in Cambria, said her store has never sold spice and was not visited by the people involved in Saturday’s crash. “The folks, they never came here, and we don’t sell that stuff here, either,” she said Tuesday.
Atoush said visitors from out of town have inquired about synthetic marijuana at the business several times since it opened five months ago.
“Many stores used to sell it, so people have been coming here since we’re a new smoke shop to see if we have it. I have a lot of people ask me. They come here for vacation; they stop and see if we have it.”
While consuming spice is not illegal, driving under the influence of synthetic marijuana is and law enforcement officials crack down on those who get behind the wheel of a car while high.
“Just like smoking marijuana, (spice) will change someone’s depth perception,” Fontecchio said. “So, they’ll be unable to carry out the right movements with the vehicle.”
Fontecchio said that sellers of spice often target customers between the ages of about 16 to 22. The products are often sold in colorful packages featuring cartoon characters and creative names.
Narcotics detectives conducted sting operations five or six years ago that uncovered significant sales of K2 or spice, Fontecchio said, but they chose not to pursue prosecutions on those cases because of the difficulties of obtaining convictions. He said the drug is typically sold in pouches for about $25 to $30.
“What we did do is talk to the owners of these (local) shops and try to get them to stop selling this stuff,” Fontecchio said. “It may be legal, but they don’t have to sell it.”
In July, the New York City health department issued a warning after emergency room visits for severe medical reactions to synthetic marijuana increased by more than 200 percent in 2014.
In August, the governor of New Hampshire declared a state of emergency when 41 people had serious medical reactions to synthetic marijuana and half were taken to emergency rooms.
Also in August, a 19-year-old from Roseville, Calif., Connor Eckhardt, reportedly died from a reaction to a spice cigarette.