America’s deadly epidemic of imitation pumpkin spice.
The last Instagram photo Kimberly Reynolds ever posted was of a pumpkin spice latte.
It’s still there on her Instagram account. Like all of her photos, it’s carefully arranged and brightly lit. The black mug of coffee sits on a clean white tablecloth, with the handle pointing down and to the right, towards five o’clock. There’s a sprinkle of spice on top of the latte foam, like a fresh dusting of cinnamon-and-nutmeg snow. A single homemade biscotti, with a single bite taken out, runs parallel to the frame.
“#Homemade #PumpkinSpiceLatte,” reads the caption. “Is there a better way to start a #Saturday?”
An hour after she posted that photo, Kimberly Reynolds was dead.
She got 53 likes.
Imitation pumpkin spice is known by many names. Generally speaking, you could call it “IPS” or “Fake Pumpkin Spice.” But if you’re looking to buy, you might call it “Pump,” or “Spice,” or “Kinfolk.” If you’re selling, you may give it a sunny name like “Pumpkin Dream” or “Nutty Meg” or “Ginger Kush” — something that’s easy to imagine blazoned on the side of a mason jar, or written in foam.
Scientifically, it’s harder to come up with an accurate name, because IPS can be made up of any number of chemicals, materials and foodstuffs. The actual pumpkin spice — cinnamon, cloves, ginger, nutmeg, pureed pumpkin — may be cut with anything from baking soda to industrial cleansers. If you’ve been burned with one of these imitators (and managed to survive the encounter) you might write it off as “Bunkin Spice” or “Burner Spice.”
One unsatisfied user who managed to keep her sense of humor described it as “Pumpkin E-Z-Clean,” because she realized she could use it to “scour the stains from [her] bathtub.” Plus, it made the whole bathroom smell like pumpkin to boot.
Detective Mark Twoson — the head of Portland’s new Imitation Pumpkin Spice Task Force — has another name for IPS.
“Cinnamon Kill,” he says.
With his wild red hair and bushy beard, Detective Twoson looks older than his 30 years, with the confidence to match — deservedly so, after his quick rise through the ranks. He’s chief of the IPSTF pilot program, charged with going after the dealers flooding the market with these dangerous imitators.
“At first, we just treated these as normal cases,” he says. “Well — not normal, exactly. Oddball cases. Outliers. But then these random dots started to form a line, and we knew we were looking at a trend. Then, just like that,” he snaps his fingers, “we’re facing a full-blown epidemic.”
Kimberly Reynolds was one of the earlier victims, and when Detective Twoson arrived at the scene, it seemed like one of those “shake-your-head” cases; “The kind of stupid thing that we tell kids about at school assemblies,” says Twoson, “or that we talk about over beers after a shift.” She was found dead on her couch, with her homemade pumpkin spice latte and an open copy of Mother Jones abandoned on her coffee table.
The coroner found cleaning supplies in her system. Poisoning. There was no suicide note, no sign of premeditation, no sign of foul play — nothing. Drugs? Possibly. At the time, Twoson just shook his head; another young person dead before their time. Another oddball case.
But then, these oddball cases started popping up all over the city: a 24-year-old woman, dead in her apartment from an apparent poisoning; a 29-year-old, hospitalized after collapsing in his office lobby; a young couple, 26 and 23, dead in the middle of a pick-your-own apple orchard.
Detective Twoson was well aware that drugs were hitting the city hard, but these cases didn’t seem to fit the profile. “No opiates in their system, no track marks, no history of drug arrests,” he says, counting them off on his fingers.
“And then there’s the things we weren’t expecting,” he says, switching to the fingers on his other hand: “Good jobs. Upper-middle class. Large social circles.”
He holds up his two hands for a moment, as if willing the opposing ideas on each to make sense. “We’ve got a rash of young people who don’t seem to be using drugs, dying from causes that we normally associate with using drugs.” He spreads his hands wide and shrugs.
“Turns out it was the pumpkin spice.”
A little more than a decade ago, Starbucks Coffee introduced the Pumpkin Spice Latte.
The 380-calorie concoction, mixing the homey, festive flavors of pumpkin pie with caffeine and whipped cream, was an instant success. In the intervening years, it has become something of an autumn obsession in America, especially among upper-middle-class Millenials.
What started with lattes has multiplied exponentially into dozens of products: Pumpkin Spice Beer; Pumpkin Spice Bagels and Cream Cheese; Pumpkin Spice Hummus; Pumpkin Spice Cereal; even Pumpkin Spice Dog Treats.
For many twentysomethings, however, even this plethora of pumpkin products is not enough. Call it FOMO, the fear of missing out; call it an obsession with anything that’s “trending”; or, just call it a sweet tooth. There seems to be a deep-seated fear among pumpkin spice fanatics that the season may pass without them getting as much pumpkin spice as humanly possible into their bodies.
“It’s like, pumpkin spice is only here for a month or two,” says a recovering pumpkin spice user I’ll call Anna — she’s the one who shared the story about being fleeced with Pumpkin E-Z-Clean. “So there’s, like, a limited time to get ahold of it. I have friends who will buy lattes and freeze them. I know a girl who has a jar of pumpkin spices in her pantry that’s this big.” She holds her hands apart like she’s open to be passed a basketball.
“It’s an occasion,” she continues, musing on the transitory nature of pumpkin spice season. “My grandparents all, like, glued themselves to the TV so they wouldn’t miss the moon landing. They made sure they got to see it, like, they wanted to be a part of something. This is the same thing.”
So when the myriad pumpkin spice products on the market aren’t enough, and it feels like the season is slipping away, and you’re staring down dozens of Instagram photos tagged #pumpkinspice and #psl and #fall, what can you do?
How can any self-respecting lover of fall throw in the towel and say, “I don’t need more pumpkin spice this year, I’ve had enough?” What choice do you have?
Imitation pumpkin spice.
For Anna and many of the other users and former users I spoke with, it started the same way: they left a coffee shop, or a flea market, or a consignment store, or some other gauzy, fall-decorated haven, and somebody lobbed a single word at them:
When she tells me about her introduction to the world of IPS, Anna seems equal parts anxious and nostalgic, wringing her hands and sweeping persistent bangs from her eyes. “It was just some guy,” she says. “I dunno, he was wearing flannel and he had a beard. And a backpack.”
The backpack was filled with plastic bags, and each one of those was filled with IPS. The dealer cooed names like “Pumpkin Nice” and “American Pie.” He told her about which strains were particularly “strong” or “mellow” or “rustic.”
Didn’t that feel like a drug deal? “Well, yeah,” says Anna, “It felt like a drug deal. But,” she shrugged, “it’s just pumpkin spice, right?”
She rushed home with her new stash and fixed herself a cappuccino. Her hands shook as she stirred the Pumpkin Nice into her mug. The first time “was like magic,” she says. “It tasted just like a PSL from the coffee shop. No — it tasted better. And I made it myself.”
That first bag only lasted through the weekend. “I used it on coffee, on ice cream, on oatmeal,” she says. “I used it on everything. And then I needed more.”
Some IPS users hang out outside record stores and gastropubs, hoping to hear the call of “Spice?” Others find a single dealer, get their phone number, and stick with them for a regular hook-up. Anna was one of the former. “I didn’t think I’d need it that often,” she says. “I honestly thought I’d get sick of it.”
But different dealers meant inconsistent product, and it wasn’t long before Anna got burned. First, it was pumpkin spice cut with talcum powder. She thought it was just one cheapskate dealer, no big deal. Then it was a baggie with a dusting of spice and a heavy heaping of sand.
“I didn’t really get hurt,” she says, “until the one cut with bathroom cleaner.”
She remembers getting a nosebleed and passing out. Waking up with her throat feeling like it was on fire. That, says Anna, is the last time she used IPS.
I ask Anna why she would take such a big risk — buy something off the street, without any regulation or protection, from a stranger — just so she could have more pumpkin spice lattes and soups and cookies. She cocks her head to the side. Even after everything that’s happened to her peers, everything that’s happened to her, she makes the question seem like an utterly ridiculous one.
“I mean,” she says, “have you tasted this stuff?”
On Portland’s quaint Exchange Street, a narrow strip of pavement is lined by brick sidewalks, artisinal shops and specialty stores. Old three and four story buildings, constructed when the city was still a major seaport, insulate the street from the financial district to the west and the government buildings to the north; it feels like a city within a city, a holdover from an earlier time. Picturesque. Scenic. Safe.
The early morning calm is interrupted by the sound of Detective Twoson’s IPSTF team busting down the door to a second-story apartment.
People leaving the Starbucks on the corner gasp, startled. They look up, trying to locate the source of the sound. Shouts of “Show me your hands!” and “On the ground!” waft down from an open window like fall leaves.
Then, calm. A few pedestrians shade their eyes from the morning sun, trying to get another look, but most continue their walk to work. Moments later, when two of Twoson’s officers walk a handcuffed Reggie Loward from his apartment building, the rushing commuters simply cross to the other side of the street to let them pass.
Two men in flawless black suits, each holding a disposable cup, shake their heads as they walk by.
“Drugs, I bet,” I hear one of them say.
“What’s the world coming to?” says the other.
“Hope it was worth it,” snorts the first. He takes a sip of his latte.
It looks and smells exactly like the real thing.
That’s the point, of course, but it still comes as a surprise. We’d all like to believe we’re smart enough, or astute enough, to tell the difference—I wouldn’t blink twice if I saw the powder Detective Twoson hands me sprinkled on a latte.
Reggie Loward’s apartment is nice, as in, “I wouldn’t expect this to be a drug dealer’s apartment.” A pastiche of vintage and modern furniture, plants hanging in the windows, even some authentic artwork (as opposed to Bob Marley and Pink Floyd posters) hanging on the wall.
The only thing that’s out of place is the vanity in the center of the living room. Not because it doesn’t fit the decor, but because the wooden door is open, and it’s filled with a stack of bags—dozens—loaded with brown powder. If it were heroin, it would be worth thousands of dollars.
Detective Twoson opens up the baggie and holds it up to his nose. He takes a liberal sniff, then hands it to me. It smells just like pumpkin spice.
“We got him,” he says.
The lab results read like a shopping list: Cinnamon. Nutmeg. Cloroxx. Gold Bond. Baking soda. Bleach. Pumpkin. Porcelain scouring powder. Coffee.
“You need a little of the real stuff,” says Detective Twoson, “Mostly for the smell. But everything it’s cut with…” He trails off, then shakes his head. “It’ll wake you up, but not like caffeine.”
Mr. Loward refuses to be interviewed, on advice from his lawyer, but his counsel states that they’ll be fighting the charges. Here’s where IPS runs into murky territory: everything in Mr. Loward’s apartment was perfectly legal.
“We can still take him down,” says Detective Twoson. “You can make crystal methamphetamines from over-the-counter products. This is the same thing, and the law is starting to come around to the idea.”
“I hate to say it,” he continues, “but every time somebody ends up in the hospital or worse from IPS, that’s the thing that helps the law come around. I wish there were a way to stop this without more people getting hurt, but that doesn’t seem to be possible.”
What would slow the tide of the epidemic?
“Easy,” he says. “People could stop being so obsessed with pumpkin spice that they’re willing to die for it.”
He opens his drawer and takes out a folder, which he tosses on his desk. I open it and find a stack of 8x10s, glossy photos, mostly of young women. Each one has a name written on it. Near the top is Kimberly Reynolds.
“That stack,” he says, “is only getting bigger.”
I flip through the photos. They’re from Facebook, from Instagram, from yearbooks. All smiles, young people on top of the world. Each living the carefully curated, aesthetically pleasing, totally sharable lives they wanted to live. Until they weren’t.
Detective Twoson sighs. “Hot chocolate season can’t get here soon enough.”
Where does the blame lie?
The dealers, of course, are the ones who cut IPS with poison—but what about the customers who feel that they need pumpkin spice so badly? Are they the ones to blame for their insatiable appetite?
Was it created by hundreds of hashtags and status updates and Instagram photos, telling the world-at-large that you need a #psl to enjoy fall?
Or should we shake our fists at the sky, blaming Mother Nature or whatever gods will listen for making pumpkin, cinnamon and nutmeg taste so damn good?
Kimberly Reynolds didn’t make herself a pumpkin spice latte on that Saturday morning because she had a death wish. She simply wanted to be a part of something bigger, something warm and nostalgic and uplifting. She went to a dealer and bought a bag of IPS because she wanted to get the most out of fall.
She didn’t want to die. She just wanted a pumpkin spice latte. She just wanted an answer to her question.
Is there a better way to start a Saturday?
If you, or somebody you know, is struggling with imitation pumpkin spice, please contact the IPS Addiction Center to speak with a counselor.
In case it needs to be said: everything in this story is made up. Well, almost everything. Starbucks did introduce the Pumpkin Spice Latte just over a decade ago. Exchange Street is a quaint street with brick sidewalks and old buildings and coffee shops, here in my seaside city of Portland, Maine. And the fall obsession with #PSL is very much alive and well. But I have never heard—and hope to never hear—of a deadly fake pumpkin spice epidemic, or an imitation pumpkin spice task force, or dealers pushing Cinnamon Kill. And while I can see, smell and taste the appeal of pumpkin spice, I still prefer hot cider myself. —JC