Doctors in Colorado are sounding an alarm about the dangers of synthetic
marijuana after seeing a surge of emergency cases tied to its use.
marijuana, legal in US, causing outcry
The products, sold under names like Black Mamba, Crazy Clown, K2 and Spice, sent
at least 263 people for emergency
treatment statewide over a one-month period last year.
"At the end of August, we started noting that patients were coming in
with a very severe clinical illness," said Dr Andrew Monte, an assistant
professor in emergency medicine at the University of Colorado School of
Medicine in Denver.
Monte said patients were delirious; they were fighting medical staff. Their
pulses were racing and many went on to have seizures.
Seven patients were put on ventilators in the intensive care unit after they
developed trouble breathing. All survived.
Monte said the cases they counted before the outbreak ended were probably
just a fraction of the total.
"All these kinds of toxicological outbreaks are far underreported, for
a couple of reasons," he said.
First, not everybody who got sick went to the hospital. Monte thinks most
people would try to stay at home and wait out the bad reaction, especially if
their symptoms weren't as severe. Second, some patients probably weren't asked about
drug use or wouldn't admit to it, making the final case count lower than it
really was, he noted.
Nothing natural about it
The surge in cases was reported in a letter published in the New England
Journal of Medicine and in the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report
from the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention.
Colorado isn't the only state to see a rise in poisonings tied to synthetic
According to an earlier report from the US Substance Abuse and Mental Health
Services Administration, the number of emergency department visits associated
with use of synthetic pot more than doubled from 2010 to 2011, with the case
count increasing from about 11 400 to more than 28 500 nationwide.
Synthetic marijuana is dried plant material that has been sprayed with
laboratory-created psychoactive chemicals that mimic THC, the active ingredient
in marijuana. It's sold in gas stations and head shops as an herbal product.
But experts say there's nothing natural about it.
"This is much closer to meth [methamphetamine]
than it is to marijuana," said Mike Van Dyke, chief of environmental
epidemiology and occupational health at the Colorado Department of Public
Health and Environment in Denver.
"This is not a natural product. This is a chemical," said Van
Dyke, who was involved in tracking the outbreak.
What's more, Van Dyke said, consumers never really know what they're buying.
"It's different from batch to batch. The whole chemical can be
completely different from batch to batch, and you just don't know what you're
getting when you buy these things," he said. "It's very
Monte said most of the synthetic marijuana users treated in the ER last winter
were men, and the majority were in their late 20s.
He said the typical user seems to be a person who needs to beat a drug test.
The chemicals in synthetic marijuana aren't easily detected in the blood or
For that reason, both experts said they didn't think synthetic marijuana use
would drop now that the real thing could be legally purchased in the state.
Although synthetic marijuana is illegal under Drug Enforcement Agency law,
Monte said the drug makers get around that by changing the chemicals and
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(Picture: Marijuana and cocaine from Shutterstock)