TUCSON (KGUN9-TV) - Dozens of boxes line the wall of a DEA evidence warehouse in Phoenix. The boxes contain Spice, all seized from major investigations.
"We look at targeting the biggest and the baddest," said Erica Curry, a spokeswoman with the DEA in Arizona.
Curry says Spice is a synthetic drug made by spraying chemicals onto a plant based material. The DEA first started to notice Spice becoming a problem about five years ago.
But in the last six months, Pima County first responders say they've seen a spike in Spice related calls.
"It's been hitting us pretty hard," said Tucson Fire Paramedic Brian Thompson, who responds to multiple Spice overdose calls every shift. "What we've seen is the patients present feverish, their temperature spikes, they're tachycardic, which means their heart rate is out the roof."
Thompson demonstrated what a normal heart rate looks like by hooking me up to a heart monitor.
"A person who overdoses on Spice where it says 62, 63 which is excellent, is going to be up near the 200's," said Thompson. "If they don't have a strong heart, it can actually put them into cardiac arrest."
The Pima County Health Department says the increase in Spice related calls has placed a large burden on both first responders and hospitals. Both Tucson Fire and Tucson Police started tracking Spice related calls earlier this year when they began to notice the increase.
Those two agencies responded to a combined 537 spice related calls between April and August, that averages to more than three calls a day. Most of the calls took place downtown, where Brian Thompson says they tend to see a lot of the same people.
"It is discouraging to see them just keep going back and back," he said.
It's not just Arizona seeing a spike. In April, the governor of New York issued an alert after more than 160 people were hospitalized in under two weeks from Spice.
But somehow, manufacturers continue to stay one step ahead of the law.
"They are always trying to evade our investigations and our agents in manufacturing these products," said DEA Spokeswoman Erica Curry. "Probably one of the most difficult hurdles to overcome is identifying the chemicals they're using."
As soon as the DEA identifies and outlaws a chemical used in the making of Spice, Curry says manufacturers will change the composition just enough to make it a new chemical.
"We have right now 350 to 400 chemicals that we've identified," she said. "It's one chemical after another. What might be popular in one region of the country may not be popular in another. It ebbs and flows, it gives and takes. It's like whack-a-mole."
And she says these chemicals make the drug extremely dangerous.
"You don't know what you're ingesting to begin with, you don't know what kind of chemicals you're taking into your body," said Curry. "We've had varying degrees of pharmalogical effects on the body."
Yet the drugs are marketed as safe and natural. Something Curry says is completely false.
"These are very, very dangerous products," she said. "There's a misperception that these are natural alternatives to marijuana. There is absolutely nothing natural about Spice, it is a very dangerous drug."
For more information about Spice and its health effects, visit the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
If you or someone you know has an addiction to Spice, click here for information on recovery and rehabilitation.