A violent car crash involving Seahawk Derrick Coleman raises questions about the drug Spice, which is unregulated, unlicensed and doesn’t show up in standard drug tests.

Share story

The speeding car ran a red light, flew over the intersection and struck Scott Braymer on the sidewalk near Pike Place Market a week before Christmas in 2010. He came to with 12 broken bones and a gash across his scalp that would need 17 staples to close.

The driver told police he had smoked spice, a form of synthetic marijuana, 15 minutes before the crash and blacked out. He later pleaded guilty to vehicular assault, reckless driving and reckless endangerment.

The release last month of the police investigation into a high-speed Bellevue crash involving Seattle Seahawk Derrick Coleman, who initially told police he, too, had smoked spice, has reawakened concerns and questions about an unregulated, unlicensed drug with wildly unpredictable symptoms which may range from agitation and anxiety to psychosis, blackouts and death.

What is spice?

Man-made chemicals meant to mimic THC, the main psychoactive ingredient in marijuana, are sprayed onto plant material, dried and distributed. Experts say “synthetic marijuana” is a misleading term because the drugs may affect the brain more powerfully than marijuana and their effects can be severely unpredictable.

Unlike heroin and prescription opioids, spice use isn’t an epidemic in the Seattle area, fueling hundreds of deadly overdoses and crime. In a state with legal marijuana, public-health officials say, those who do use it are often trying to avoid detection on standard drug screenings. It’s also easily available to teens. To purchase, the buyer doesn’t have to be 18.

Some of the brand names sound appealing: Spice, K2, Paradise, Serenity. But others hint at the volatility of the drug: AK-47, for example, and the two found in Coleman’s truck, Mad Pitbulls and F’d Up!, which features a silver skull with bared teeth seeming to lunge out at the user.

Coleman has not been charged in the crash, which left the driver of the car he struck with a concussion and broken collarbone. Bellevue police recommended charges of felony hit-and-run and vehicular assault. The King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office said it is still reviewing the case.

The drugs are available in convenience stores around Seattle and over the Internet, according to law-enforcement officials. They’re sold as “potpourri” or “herbal incense” and packaged in foil packets with constantly changing brand names and chemical-makeups designed to stay a step ahead of the law.

“Synthetic marijuana products are very dangerous drugs. We don’t know what’s in them, they’re not tested for safety or efficacy, and the effects are entirely unpredictable. Of all the abused drugs out on the market, synthetic marijuana scares me the most,” said Dr. Alexander Garrard, clinical managing director of the Washington Poison Center.

Reports to poison centers of adverse reactions to synthetic cannabinoids spiked last year on the East Coast and in parts of the South. New York, for example, had 1,729 calls, Mississippi 1,362. Garrard said that hasn’t been the case in Washington, which had 36 calls in 2015.

Who is using the drugs

Since Washington legalized marijuana in 2012, Garrard said, most people don’t turn to the synthetic substitute.

But there is an exception: People whose jobs require regular drug testing.

Marijuana’s chemical makeup is well known and shows up on standard drug screenings, Garrard said. Spice, which can refer to both the brand and to synthetic marijuana in general, often does not.

“We see a lot of cases around military bases, in Tacoma, Olympia and Spokane,” he said.

Other users may include the holders of commercial driver’s licenses and professional athletes. The driver in the Braymer crash worked for a delivery service. The New England Patriots’ Chandler Jones was briefly hospitalized in January after reportedly smoking synthetic marijuana.

Around the country, drivers have been charged in traffic fatalities after police said they’d used spice. But proving that the drug caused the accident can be difficult, and prosecutors in some cases end up charging less serious crimes.

Bill and Lynn McKernan, fraternal twins on their way to New York City to celebrate their 40th birthday in 2011, were killed when a dump truck driven by a man with synthetic marijuana in his system left the interstate in Pennsylvania at 55 mph, flew up an embankment and plummeted onto an interstate below, crushing the twins’ car.

Dustin Graupman, who is married to the twins’ sister, now gets a Google alert every time there’s a story about synthetic marijuana and car accidents.

He said there’s a pattern to the driving behavior: reckless, pedal-to-the-metal speed, erratic swerving, blackouts and nothing in the weather or traffic to explain the crash. He and his wife spent two years after the accident pressing for charges to be brought against the driver. They urged the police and prosecutors to submit the driver’s blood to a lab that specializes in hard-to-detect drugs, including synthetic marijuana.

The driver’s defense attorney argued that his client had a history of seizures and that his medical condition, not synthetic marijuana, caused the accident. He ultimately pleaded guilty to two counts of involuntary manslaughter and DUI, but not the more serious homicide by vehicle while impaired.

“It concerns me that this could be happening on roads across the country every day. It’s out there (synthetic marijuana). People are smoking it and driving without understanding the true dangers,” Graupman said.

Fast-changing formulas

The Washington State Toxicology Laboratory sends suspected synthetic-marijuana blood samples to specialized labs to be analyzed, said Brianna Peterson, lab manager. She said scientists have to know the chemical properties of a drug in order to isolate it and to have a known standard by which to test for its presence. Those requirements are too time- consuming and expensive for the state lab to undertake.

Last year, she said, in driving incidents in which synthetic marijuana was suspected, private lab tests confirmed the presence of the drug in 53 cases. An equal number of suspected cases came back negative.

“There are hundreds of compounds that constitute spice,” she said. “Cocaine is always cocaine. Spice is always changing.”

The drugs are called “synthetic cannabinoids” by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) because they are related to chemicals found in the marijuana plant. But experts say it’s misleading to call the drugs “synthetic marijuana” because they may affect the brain more powerfully than marijuana and their effects can be severely unpredictable, according to NIDA.

Law-enforcement officials say that man-made chemicals meant to mimic THC, the main psychoactive ingredient in marijuana, are sprayed onto leafy, green plant material, dried and distributed, often in bulk by commercial labs in China, but also domestically.

The Federal Drug Enforcement Administration has identified more than 100 synthetic cannabinoids on the market, said Agent Jodie Underwood, public-information officer for the Seattle DEA. The agency has used its authority to ban 29 as illegal, but she said that as soon as one formula is outlawed, manufacturers tweak the chemicals to make a version the DEA hasn’t yet seen.

“These substances are being pumped onto the streets so quickly that law enforcement can’t keep up,” Underwood said. “Our efforts are often legitimately described as ’whack-a-mole’ — for every substance that is brought under federal control, there are at least four or five that are not.”

In some states, she said, it’s easier for teens to get their hands on synthetic marijuana than cigarettes, because no ID is required for its purchase. And because the effects are so unpredictable, she said, anyone trying it is “playing Russian roulette.”

At the University of Washington Department of Pharmacology, medical researchers have been studying synthetic cannabinoids to try to re-create the beneficial effects of marijuana such as the anti-seizure, anti-inflammatory and anti-tumor properties and to separate those from the psychotropic effects.

The explosion of spice and other synthetic cannabinoids represents chemists trying to do the exact opposite — exploit the mind-altering qualities, said Dr. Nephi Stella, professor of pharmacology. The problem, he said, is that efforts to mimic the effects of the marijuana plant in a purely chemical form is resulting in the production of toxic compounds whose impacts on the brain, behavior and overall health is little understood.

“Now that marijuana is legal, people think the synthetic version is safe; they take it. We’re just starting to have a little understanding that the psychotropic molecule is very potent. It’s stronger and more potent than THC. And some individuals might also react very strongly,” Stella said.

Five years after he was struck near the Pike Place Market by the driver who had smoked spice, Scott Braymer, now 63, said he has no physical effects from the crash. He said the emergency-room doctor at Harborview Medical Center told him he was lucky. All 12 broken bones were ones that would heal.

The driver who hit him, Travis C. Lipski, was sentenced to 12 months in work release.

Braymer, a marine-operations watch supervisor for Washington State Ferries, said he had heard about spice before the accident but didn’t realize what its effect could be on someone getting behind the wheel of a car or truck.

“You’d think actions would be taken to stop its use,” he said. “It’s out there. It’s available. It should not be allowed.”