Spice illegal, but problems persist

Despite a ban on its sale and possession, Anchorage social service providers say they’ve seen an alarming increase in the use of the synthetic drug known as Spice.

“We have people – literally every day, multiple times – standing across the street from the café selling Spice,” said Lisa Sauder, executive director of Bean’s Cafe. “Our staff can tell you who they are, what they look like, what their street name is at least.”

Thursday, Sauder spoke before members of the Anchorage Assembly’s new committee on alcohol and drug abuse. It was the group’s second meeting, and Assembly members Bill Evans, Amy Demboski, Pete Petersen, Elvi Gray-Jackson and Dick Traini heard from representatives of Brother Francis Shelter, Bean’s Cafe, the Anchorage Fire Department and numerous other community organizations. The seats in the Assembly’s City Hall conference room were nearly full.

The committee was formed with a “bias towards action,” and Evans said it aimed to look for possible solutions to substance abuse troubles among Anchorage’s homeless. Its final recommendation would go before the full Assembly for consideration.

At Thursday’s two-hour meeting, Sauder spoke to the committee alongside Mary Beth Bragiel, deputy director at Catholic Social Services. They encouraged Assembly members to look at all the factors surrounding addiction and chronic homelessness. They recommended community involvement for “collective impact.” And they asked for help fighting a growing problem.

“The dramatic increase of people using Spice in the last year has had serious consequences, both at the shelter and at the café,” Bragiel said. “Guests, employees and volunteers all feel unsafe.”

She told committee members about the time a 20-something shelter guest fought three police officers while he was under the influence, and the woman who chased others around the property with a knife. Bragiel said the drug turns up during routine check-in searches, and they’ve caught people smoking it in the shelter’s enclosed courtyard. While the Assembly banned the drug in January, Sauder said it’s still easily accessible online.

At the same time, both the cafe and the shelter have seen alarmingly high numbers of chronic users.

Bragiel said more than half of the people who stayed at Brother Francis Shelter last year had done so for three or more years. More than a quarter had stayed there for at least 10. People are increasingly using the emergency shelter as a long-term home. Combined with the spike in drug-related problems, Bragiel said CSS had revamped policies at the 240-person shelter.

“We felt that we had moved from helping people to enabling people,” she said.

This winter, she said the shelter won’t issue passes once guests have stayed their 30-day limit. Bringing drugs or weapons into the shelter will get you temporarily kicked out of both Brother Francis and Bean’s Cafe.

But beyond the campus on 3rd Avenue, Bragiel said it would take city help to reverse the troubling trend.

Earlier this year, she said, Sauder and CSS Executive Director Susan Bomalaski sent a letter to Mayor Dan Sullivan and Anchorage Police Department Chief Mark Mew requesting a regular police presence at the Bean’s Cafe and Brother Francis Shelter property. As of Thursday, she said they had not received a response.

APD could not immediately be reached for comment Friday morning.

Meanwhile, the Spice problem isn’t limited to Bean’s Cafe and the neighboring shelter. Up the road, Mountain View residents have seen it used in Mizelle Park. Alice Lawrence, who runs a small apartment complex and informal soup kitchen on Richmond Avenue, said she’s seen more and more of the drug lately. It can make people violent and unpredictable.

At Brother Francis Shelter, with its two paid staff and hundreds of guests, Bragiel said the drug can cause volatile and dangerous situations. For now, it’s not going away.

“People are afraid,” she said.

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