The Hippo


Jul 19, 2019








Addicted to spice

Cameron Steckler was a 19-year-old in Manchester when, in September 2013, he purchased his first packet of spice from Spider Bite, where the drug was displayed openly in glass cases.
Steckler said he soon grew addicted to spice. And he wasn’t alone. He recalled people approaching him in the parks, asking him if he was carrying.
“I was homeless for a while, staying at the New Horizons shelter, and I noticed [spice] was quite popular among that population of people,” Steckler said.
One day, Steckler exited TN Gas and Convenience on Bridge Street after buying spice there when he saw a man waiting outside.
“[The man] saw that I’d just bought the spice. I walked out with the bag in my hand, and he asked me for some,” Steckler said. “I could see this look, like he was physically sick and really desperate.”
Steckler, who experimented with hallucinogens in the past, said the high he would get from spice was intense.
“It was close to the extremes of highs that you would encounter when you were on acid or on mushrooms,” Steckler said. “It was pretty potent stuff.”
When Manchester passed its ordinance banning spice city-wide on Oct. 7, that didn’t stop Steckler from finding the drug. He turned to the Internet and had it shipped to his doorstep. And on Election Day the following month, Steckler suffered a seizure at work. He lied to doctors at the hospital, saying he didn’t take any drugs. He had a second seizure within a week of the first and, from there, it escalated.
Steckler was smoking a spice variety called Super Nova that he got online when he began to suffer psychosis in January and February of this year. He grew increasingly paranoid and lost touch with reality. By March, he was admitted to the state’s mental hospital, New Hampshire Hospital.
“When I got to the hospital, I thought I was dealing with famous people,” Steckler said. “I saw Adam Levine, Ashton Kutcher...”
He said the mental breakdown was most likely caused by his frequent use of spice.
These days, Steckler is in recovery, living in a sober home in Dover called Bonfire. And as much as he agrees spice is a risky drug to be messing with, Steckler is circumspect about banning it, as the state is poised to do with a bill that passed both the House and Senate.
“A law is only as good as [its] enforcement,” Steckler said. “With the heroin epidemic, I don’t see spice necessarily taking priority over heroin. That’s one of my concerns with this bill...”

Spice crackdown
State finalizing bill to ban synthetic marijuana

By Ryan Lessard

New Hampshire is about to ban synthetic drugs in the state with a bill written like a science textbook — nearly a dozen pages filled with phrases like “any compound containing a 2-(3-hydroxycyclohexyl)phenol structure with a substituent at the 5-position of the phenolic ring.”

To a layman, it's gibberish. But most lawmakers say it's better than the system we have now.
The challenge has been how the law defines synthetic marijuana, or “spice,” when this class of drug can include a large family of substances. This bill attempts to place them all under the same legal umbrella and anticipate formulas not yet created. But some worry that a new prohibition will simply drive the problem underground and set the stage for worse alternatives.
Standard procedure
The bill is modeled after what cities like Manchester already have in force. But even Manchester's ban is very new. In fact, as recently as one year ago, owners of head shops and convenience stores conducted their sales out in the open, with the products on display.
Two years ago, in June, Brian O'Leary was a patrol officer driving his cruiser in downtown Manchester when he got a call for a suspicious package at the Center of New Hampshire Office Tower near the Radisson. When he got there, he found a cardboard box with a print of a wheeled mop bucket on the side. Inside it was a garbage bag full of 5, 10 and 50 gram packets of spice. They were black and purple with the brand name Bizarro. On the back, it said “Not for human consumption.”
O'Leary, who is now a detective, said that was the first time he ever encountered the drug.
“When I was out on the road, I never came across it,” O'Leary said. “I had heard about it through word of mouth at the station.”
He brought the box back to the station, filed a report and submitted it to evidence. A cursory web search concluded the box content's street value was in the tens of thousands of dollars.
Later that week, Spider Bite, a tattoo parlor in the city that sold spice over the counter, reported a theft of the same Bizarro product. But O'Leary said the timelines didn't match, so it was likely a coincidence, though he thinks the package was probably intended for Spider Bite.
Until recently, this is how spice was handled in the city. It was considered a legal drug because, for the most part, it was. As soon as either the federal or local governments banned one of the chemicals found on the dried plant materials marketed as potpourri or incense, rogue chemists would slightly change the formula to make it legal again. Any major effort to find the illegal stuff would be too resource intensive. It would mean saddling an already backlogged state forensic lab with drug tests — that in all likelihood would come back negative for controlled substances — and redirecting detectives who already had their hands full dealing with the growing heroin problem.
The crackdown
On Aug. 27 last year, state lawmakers convened its first meeting of the synthetic drugs study committee in the Legislative Office Building in Concord. 
That day, in Manchester, federal agents from the DEA and officers from Manchester's Special Investigation Unit executed search warrants at two buildings on Elm Street, where Spider Bite was operating. They seized Spider Bite's entire supply of spice and $14,000 in cash. This followed a DEA-led sting where a confidential informant allegedly purchased spice from Spider Bite on Aug. 14 and 18. Some of the spice purchased on those dates, like the Diamond Kush brand, tested positive for Schedule 1 substances — meaning it was illegal by federal law.
Authorities claimed the seizures were the culmination of a six-month investigation, but the drug buys took place just a couple days after more than 40 people in the city had fallen ill, unresponsive or psychotic after smoking the bubblegum flavored Smacked brand of spice. The 14th was the same day Gov. Maggie Hassan had declared a state of emergency. By the end of the public health crisis, city authorities counted a total of 51 cases.
Brett Harpster is the assistant county attorney prosecuting the case against Jon Thomas, the owner of Spider Bite.
“There’s information you can show … from the overdoses in August, that spice is far more potent and dangerous than marijuana,” Harpster said. “It’s multiple times more addictive and dangerous than marijuana. So that’s why we’ve been taking it more seriously.”
When police eventually announced the raid at Spider Bite, it was early September and no charges had been brought against Thomas. But by Oct. 17, he was indicted. Harpster said Thomas was charged with two counts of Controlled Drug Acts Prohibited by state law. The maximum sentence for the charges is three and a half to seven years in prison and up to a $100,000 fine. A plea and sentencing hearing is scheduled for June 3 at Hillsborough County Superior Court in Manchester.
Spider Bite isn't the only place where the city and state have cracked down on the sale of spice. The City Clerk's office closed three storefronts, including TN Gas, on Aug. 13 because overdose victims had named their establishments as the source of the drug. It was six days before they were allowed to reopen.
Harpster said one store was targeted by the DEA in June, well before the overdoses occurred. Muhammad Toor, the owner of Pigeon's Super Market, was arrested after federal agents performed a sting, and they searched Toor's home and business for the spice. Toor's case is scheduled for jury selection on June 8.
And last November, Queen City Market on Elm Street was penalized for being the only store in violation of the newly-ordained city ban.
The difference between Spider Bite and those stores that sold Smacked, according to police, is that Spider Bite allegedly continued to sell spice even during the state of emergency. It was selling different varieties not covered by the quarantine, and police said it began requiring customers to sign a form promising they wouldn't consume the drug before selling it to them. Thomas declined to comment on the record while his case is still being adjudicated.
Unintended consequences?
While those cases are being dealt with in Manchester, the state is looking for a more widespread solution. Banning the drug is a popular notion in the Senate, where the bill passed unanimously, but House Republicans were split down the middle on the issue with 117 voting against it.
Rep. Nick Zaricki of Goffstown was among them. Zaricki said he and other lawmakers he spoke with had a number of concerns with the bill. One was the power it would give the Health Commissioner to be able to add new substances to the banned list as they arise.
“You have a situation where, theoretically, the executive branch could decide Lysol is a banned substance because you can get high off that,” Zaricki said.
But Zaricki is also worried that a new prohibition will exacerbate problems caused by the marijuana prohibition, something the New Hampshire House is trying to roll back with a decriminalization bill.
“The whole reason spice became popular is it was billed as a synthetic marijuana,” Zaricki said. “It stands to reason if we ban these, we're just going to get the next more dangerous [drug] coming down the pike.”
The new, statewide ban would make the sale of spice a violation-level offense punishable by up to a $1,000 fine and a potential loss of liquor or food licenses.
William Hinkle at the governor's office said Gov. Maggie Hassan is likely to sign the bill once the two chambers reconcile an amendment added by the House. 
As seen in the May 28, 2015 issue of the Hippo.

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