SAN DIEGO - The City Council Monday unanimously approved a ban on a synthetic drug known as "spice," which San Diego authorities say is responsible for a rash of hundreds of medical distress cases in recent months.
The law prohibits the manufacture, sale, distribution and possession of federal Schedule I drugs, "novel synthetic drugs" and "novel psychoactive drugs," categories that include spice, according to the City Attorney's Office.
The San Diego Police Department recommended the ban -- which does not apply to medical marijuana -- because of holes in state and federal regulations that are exploited by makers and sellers of so-called designer drugs. Only a handful of the 100 or so chemical formulas used to make the drug are prohibited.
According to a staff report, emergency medical personnel responded to 650 cases of medical distress caused by spice between November and March, around two-thirds in a swath of the city running from Barrio Logan through downtown to Hillcrest. Downtown and East Village saw about half the cases.
The average number of calls per month from April to October last year was seven, the report said.
In February, there were 120 such cases in downtown alone. Spice is frequently used by the homeless, particularly in the 300-500 blocks of C Street -- alongside the trolley tracks just east of City Hall -- and the 1200-1300 blocks of Imperial Avenue, according to the report.
"I think this issue is, first and foremost, a neighborhood quality-of-life concern," said Councilman Todd Gloria, who represents most of the affected areas. "A lot of business owners in East Village, Hillcrest and elsewhere have been in touch with me about what this is doing to their bottom lines and to their neighborhood character."
He said it's also a budgetary issue, with city personnel responding to the calls, and makes the homelessness problem more difficult to solve.
Investigators viewing surveillance camera footage said they saw the drug consumed almost immediately after purchase, and they described as "alarming" what came next.
"Several of the users became incapacitated immediately after ingesting the spice," the report says. "Many fell directly to their knees and shortly thereafter, lost consciousness. Some began stumbling and had difficulty standing or walking. Many had to hold onto the side of a building, a nearby tree, newspaper stand or some other sturdy object to prevent from falling."
Emergency medical personnel were sometimes met by violent responses from spice users too incoherent to realize someone was trying to help them, according to the report.
Police said spice is a mixture of herbs and spices that is typically sprayed with a synthetic compound chemically similar to THC, the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana. Manufacturers typically alter the molecular structure of the drug in order to get around narcotics laws.
The drug looks and feels like marijuana and is ingested by smoking but is far more potent, according to the report.
Police said the ban will be enforced criminally, civilly or administratively through procedures already existing in the municipal code. Criminal enforcement will come in the form of misdemeanors or infractions, with penalties ranging up to three years probation, six months in jail and a $2,500 fine.
Gloria, who is being termed out this year and is running for an Assembly seat, said he hopes the City Council's action will prompt the state to tighten its laws on designer drugs.