Reports of Illness Linked to Synthetic Cannabinoid Use Surge in 2018

UPDATE: 3 Illinois Deaths Linked to Synthetic Marijuana Use

In the first 95 days of 2018, there have been 111 cases of illness related to synthetic cannabinoid use in Illinois, according to the Illinois Poison Center. For that same time period between 2012 and 2017, there were 125 total cases in the state.

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The “huge increase” is being driven largely by patients who have experienced severe bleeding after using synthetic cannabinoids, says Carol DesLauriers, senior director of the Illinois Poison Center. “This is a new phenomenon this year.”

There have also been two deaths linked to the drugs since March 28.

On Friday, the Cook County Medical Examiner’s Office said it detected broadifacoum, a lethal anticoagulant often used in rat poison, when investigating one of the fatalities (the other occurred in central Illinois, according to an Illinois Department of Public Health spokesperson). The cause of death is pending, though officials say excessive bleeding was found during the autopsy. The patient, a 22-year-old man, was pronounced dead March 28 at Advocate Christ Medical Center.

Among the cases reported to the IPC this year, 89 people have been hospitalized for severe bleeding after using synthetic cannabinoids, including 24 in Chicago and six in Cook County as of Thursday, according to IDPH. Symptoms have included coughing up blood, blood in urine, severe bloody nose and/or bleeding gums, according to officials. In nine of the recent hospitalizations, patients have tested positive for brodifacoum.

Often sold as Spice, K2 or fake weed, synthetic cannabinoids are man-made chemicals that act on the same brain cell receptors as the main active ingredient in marijuana (tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC), according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The drugs are not regulated and a steady flow of new ones, with unknown health risks, become available each year.

“The issue with synthetic cannabinoids is you never know what you’re getting. You never know what’s in there,” DesLauriers said. “Symptoms have ranged from everything from passing out, to having a seizure, to having hallucinations, to having issues with blood pressure and heart rate. The types of symptoms we see from synthetic drugs and synthetic cannabinoids can vary.”

Illinois Poison Center Medical Director Mike Wahl says the rat poison is interfering with the body’s blood-clotting abilities. “Little things that would normally clot don’t clot, and your body can’t heal itself and you end up with severe bleeding,” he said.

Health officials are urging people to not use the drugs, which can be smoked, ingested or mixed into liquids for e-cigarette use – even if they’ve used them in the past.

“We know that there’s a batch of this product that’s very unsafe, potentially life-threatening and we don’t want people experimenting with them,” said Chicago Department of Public Health Chief Medical Officer Allison Arwady. 

Of the 89 cases linked to severe bleeding, the majority were reported among 25-34 year olds (31 cases), followed by 15-25 year-olds (19 cases), according to IDPH.

Anyone who has used synthetic cannabinoids and noticed unusual bleeding or bruising should go to the emergency room “even if it seems like minor extra bleeding,” said Arwady. “There’s treatment available but it needs to be given in a hospital setting with close monitoring.”

Treatment includes intravenous or oral doses of vitamin K, depending on the location and intensity of the symptoms, according to Dr. Patrick Lank, a medical toxicologist who works at Northwestern Memorial Hospital.

After a patient is discharged from the hospital, they’ll have to continue medication and undergo regular blood tests “till the toxin is excreted from their body, and that could take several weeks or months,” Wahl said. If a patient were to stop taking medication too soon, they could develop severe bleeding within two days.

DesLauriers says she’s especially concerned about how long the toxins remain in patients’ bodies. “In previous years when these people (who used synthetic cannabinoids) ended up in hospitals or sick, they ended up recovering in a few days. That’s different now. Patients are in the hospital for several days and then require therapies for weeks to months,” she said.

Health officials are also urging patients to share information about where they purchased the drugs as IDPH and CDPH continue to investigate the outbreak and try to identify common products and determine where they were obtained.

“Nobody is coming after the user,” Wahl said. “We want to help treat people so they don’t bleed to death.” Sharing information allows health officials to “protect other people from getting sick later on.”

Synthetic cannabinoids can be found throughout the state and U.S. in convenience stores, gas stations, novelty stores, drug paraphernalia stores and online, according to IDPH.

On Monday, the U.S. attorney’s office charged three people with federal drug offenses for allegedly conspiring to sell synthetic cannabinoids at a West Side convenience store.

Anyone who has a reaction to synthetic cannabinoids should call 911 or go immediately to the emergency department, according to IDPH. Officials also urge patients to inform their health care providers about a possible link between their symptoms and synthetic cannabinoid use.

Contact Kristen Thometz: @kristenthometz | [email protected] | (773) 509-5452

Related stories:

70 Cases of Severe Bleeding in Illinois Linked to Synthetic Marijuana Use

April 3: Health officials on Tuesday are again urging people to avoid synthetic cannabinoids – even if they’ve used them in the past without incident. The drugs “are not a safe alternative to marijuana” and “probably more toxic,” said Illinois Poison Center Medical Director Mike Wahl.

3 Charged for Allegedly Conspiring to Sell Synthetic Marijuana in Chicago

April 3: The U.S. attorney’s office charged three people Monday with federal drug offenses for allegedly conspiring to sell synthetic cannabinoids at a West Side convenience store.

2 Illinois Deaths Linked to Use of Synthetic Marijuana

April 2: Two people have died in Illinois, including one in the Chicago area, after experiencing severe bleeding related to the use of synthetic cannabinoids, according to the Illinois Department of Public Health.

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