MANCHESTER - The number of people in Manchester who have overdosed on synthetic marijuana, often called “Spice,” that was being sold in about 50 corner stores across the city, had climbed to 47 by late Friday morning, according to police.
"We continue to respond to Spice-related overdoses," said Assistant Police Chief Nick Willard. He said the number is ever-changing and continues to happen in "real time."
Willard said he believes store owners have removed all Spice packets, not just the bubblegum-flavored "Smacked!," which was traced to the alarming number of overdoses, from their stores.
"I would hope they are abiding by the state of emergency," he said.
Spice, also known as K2, contains plant materials coated with dangerous psychoactive compounds that mimic THC, the active ingredient in marijuana, according to federal authorities.
On Wednesday, the city clerk's office revoked the business licenses for three convenience stores that allegedly sold the bubblegum-flavored “Smacked!” traced to the overdoses. They included Han's Food Mart, 353 Maple St., Union Street Market, 621 Union St., and TN Convenience, 90 Bridge St., which is challenging its closure in court.
Atty. Joseph Kelly Levasseur, who is representing owner Taif Nourie, said his client never sold that particular product but the city shut down his business anyway based on the word of someone who overdosed. The store, he said, did have other types of Spice but police, who searched the business for about 30 minutes on Tuesday after getting an employee's consent, said those were OK to sell.
Levasseur said he believes at least one of the other businesses that were shut down -- and possibly both -- will be challenging the shutdowns as well.
He said his client is losing about $10,000 a day.
On Thursday, Gov. Maggie Hassan declared a State of Emergency, triggering the state Department of Health and Human Services’ public health powers to investigate, isolate or quarantine and destroy the “Bubblegum Flavor” of “Smacked!” It remains in effect for 21 days.
Dr. Jose Montero, director of public health services at DHHS, said stores that are selling these products do so under the pretense that they are for other legal uses, such as potpourri or incense. However, because the products contain a Schedule 1 controlled substance, they are illegal, he said.
“And that is where we are exercising our public health authority,” he said. “It shouldn’t be out there so we have the right to remove it.”
Levasseur said he believes Hassan handled the situation correctly in declaring a health emergency and ordering the product off the shelves, not shutting down the businesses.
"The use of the extraordinary remedy of shutting a business down without a hearing is especially repugnant in this instance because the Petitioner did not do anything illegal as it did not sell this particular product now banned by the state," wrote Levasseur, who serves as an alderman-at-large, wrote in court documents. "What makes this case even stranger is the fact that even if the Petitioner had the product on its shelves the product itself was not illegal to sell."
TN's owners, he wrote, have been good business operators and are "good people who came to this country from Iraq. They left Iraq because of fear of a powerful, arbitrary and unrelenting government. It is ironic that they have now come to America and are being subjected to the very same fears they left Iraq for."
Nourie's father, Levasseur said, was an Iraqi general who helped the Americans.
A hearing is slated for Monday in Hillsborough County Superior Court, Northern District.
Willard declined to comment on the court challenge, pointing out it was the city clerk's office that pulled the stores' business licenses.
Authorities said two other brands of the synthetic cannabinoids, "Crazy Monkey" and "Green Giant," also have tested positive for controlled substances.
And Willard said that on Thursday, for the first time, someone overdosed on pineapple-flavored “Smacked!”
During the investigation, ongoing since last Monday, Willard said one store owner told investigators he purchased the "Smacked!" variety from an individual who walked into the store one day and asked if he wanted to buy it.
The store owner did not know the person's name, did not know where the product originated or the validity of it. Willard said that store bought 100 packets and had nine left that they turned over to police.
The synthetic drug is a legal product, marketed as potpourri and marked "not for human consumption." Willard said. However, none of the corner stores had it displayed openly, like potato chips or other snack foods on a rack.
Customers had to ask for the product and the clerk would go to a back room, closet or into a drawer underneath the front counter to get it, he explained.
The manner in which it was being sold, Willard said, leads investigators to suspect store owners knew the product was not legitimate.
Dr. Elizabeth Talbot, deputy state epidemiologist, said Spice causes “psychotropic intoxication.” And that makes it dangerous.
“What we’re hearing from our front-line providers is this product causes severe altered metal status and often seizures,” she said.
Many of those who overdosed in Manchester were found in city parks and are among the city's transient population. Some of the overdoses were frightening for officers to see, with some of the people who overdosed being described as zombie-like, police said.
Willard said in some cases users were incoherent, in others extremely lethargic and others were "completely passed out."
Willard said one man was in a park, down on the ground on all fours, shoveling dirt and grass into his mouth. While officers were talking to him, he lurched forward suddenly and became unconscious. An ambulance immediately was called.
In another incident, an unconscious motorist was found in a running car in the middle of a road. Spice was spattered on the driver's shirt.
Willard also said they believe the overdoses were directly related to the amount ingested. He conceded the overdoses could also have resulted from combining it with other drugs or alcohol.
Spice is a mixture of herbs and spices that is typically sprayed with a synthetic compound, chemically similar to THC, according to Sgt. Brian O'Keefe. People commonly smoke it as a way to obtain a high.
In response to the emergency declaration, Montero said his agency has been working with local and state police and the New Hampshire Information and Analysis Center to monitor whether other communities are experiencing such problems. “And so far, as of now we have no reports of any other findings beyond what was already reported” in Manchester, he said.
Health authorities also have contacted the Poison Control Center, both for advice and to find out if it has received reports from emergency rooms or individuals about adverse reactions.
“So far we have no data showing anything abnormal or unusual...,” Montero said.
Officials here also have contacted neighboring states to see if they’re experiencing similar problems, he said, “and we have not found information like that either.”
The public health division has sent out information to clinicians describing the symptoms and treatments of adverse reactions, Montero said.
Spice began showing up in Manchester in 2011. It became illegal in New Hampshire on Aug. 18, 2012, but continues to be sold because the chemical content is constantly changed by the manufacturers, many in China, so that it falls within legal limits, O'Keefe explained.
He said convenience store owners were first asked to clear the product from shelves and then officers were sent out to ensure it was not still being sold. Levasseur said his client was not called first, that three police officers showed up unannounced on Tuesday.
Montero said even if all the “Smacked” product is removed from New Hampshire, it’s likely another version will appear in the future. “This is an ongoing battle,” he said.