BY ART BUKOWSKI
TRAVERSE CITY — Laurie Wildman often watched as the "spice girls" showed up like clockwork shortly before 10 a.m. most days.
Wildman, who co-owns Federico's Design Jewelers in downtown Traverse City, isn't referring to the 1990s musical act. She's talking about a haggard group who for months congregated near her shop's entrance.
They milled about or lounged on benches along Front Street, Wildman said. Sometimes they asked passersby for money. A few even dozed in booths in the Subway restaurant next door, the manager there said.
Then, just about 10 a.m., the doors opened to a nearby business called Blue in the Face, and the crowd trudged up the steps to purchase a substance called "spice." The term often is applied to various brands of generally legal synthetic marijuana substitutes.
Blue in the Face's customers stumbled out afterward; sometimes they smoked their purchases right on the street, Wildman said. Other times they went to a walkway next to Pangea's Pizza and passed out on park benches.
Shop owners and workers near Blue in the Face tired of the routine and believed it hampered their business, but crowds began to dissipate late this week when Blue in the Face owner Matt Hunter apparently stopped selling the substance.
"We're hopeful that they'll stop seeking this place out for their spice," Wildman said.
Hunter, who also owns the Soul Hole restaurant on Union Street and Dockside Party Store in Elmwood Township, declined comment through a store employee and didn't return repeated calls. The employee said Hunter removed the substance from the store, but couldn't say if he planned to bring it back.
Traverse City police received almost daily complaints about the people gathered by Blue in the Face for their morning spice fix, Capt. Steve Morgan said. The drug appears to have a substantial impact on those who use it, he said, and people who left the business often appeared to be in a "mental stupor."
"They can't reason very well; they don't really know what time it is," he said. "They're pretty much out of it."
Spice generally is legal if it's not spiked with illicit drugs, Morgan said. Police don't want to confiscate the substance or arrest anyone for possessing it if they aren't positive it contains illegal drugs.
"We're really on thin ice in even taking it," he said.
Police never attempted to test the substance sold at Blue in the Face to see exactly what it contains, Morgan said. Grand Traverse Prosecutor Alan Schneider was hesitant to comment on the legality of the substance without a test to see what it contains. If police believe something is illegal, there are ways to find out, he said.
"If there's a suspicion that what's being sold is illegal, a search warrant can be issued, the substance seized and the substance tested," he said.
Police on multiple instances ushered people out of the downtown area, especially those passed out on benches. Mary Joslin, who manages the Subway, said she's troubled by the behavior of those who gather for spice. They constantly cut through her restaurant and sometimes smoke substances in her bathroom, among other issues.
"It's terribly upsetting; we're calling the cops nonstop," she said. "We have a lot of regular people coming in every day, and they have to wade through these people that are asking them for money. It's ridiculous."
James Slaughter, a Traverse City resident who said he regularly bought spice from Blue in the Face, said those who use it on the streets right after buying it are giving the substance a bad reputation.
"People are doing it in front of everybody, and it's ruining it for everybody else," he said.
The substance can be burned as incense, he said, but many people smoke it as a marijuana substitute.
"You don't get the high like marijuana, but it takes the edge off," he said.
Francisco Benavides, another user, said the substance is legal and should be.
"I don't see anything wrong with it," he said. "I don't abuse it."
Spice can be bought at other shops and some gas stations in town, Benavides said.