"Severe Bleeding" And Synthetic Marijuana Linked In Recent Outbreak

By Victoria Kim 04/03/18

More than 50 people have been hospitalized with symptoms including "coughing up blood, blood in the urine and severe bloody nose.”

medical staff rushing a patient through the hospital halls on a gurney

Chicago officials are investigating a recent outbreak of people being hospitalized for “severe bleeding” tied to the use of synthetic marijuana.

According to CNN, about 56 such cases, including two deaths, have been reported in the last couple of months in Chicago and central Illinois. “All cases have required hospitalization for symptoms such as coughing up blood, blood in the urine, severe bloody nose, and/or bleeding gums,” according to a statement by the IDPH.

Chicago police and the Illinois Department of Public Health (IDPH) are investigating the cause of the outbreak. “Despite the perception that synthetic cannabinoids are safe and a legal alternative to marijuana, many are illegal and can cause severe illness,” said Nirav D. Shah, director of IDPH. “The recent cases of severe bleeding are evidence of the harm synthetic cannabinoids can cause.”

Possible side effects of using synthetic marijuana include rapid heart rate, vomiting, agitation, confusion, and hallucinations, according to the CDC.

Officials are trying to identify the contaminant in the synthetic weed that sickened so many. Jerrold Leikin, a toxicology expert who has been following the outbreak through the Illinois Poison Center, told NBC Chicago that the contaminant may be a kind of anticoagulant or blood thinner. “I guess that’s why they call it illicit drugs, ‘cause you don’t know what you’re getting,” he said.

So far, three of the cases tested positive for brodifacoum, according to the IDPH. Brodifacoum is a lethal anticoagulant often used in rat poison.

An IDPH spokesperson said this is the first time the Chicago area has seen “an outbreak of this magnitude.”

But similar outbreaks have occurred across the United States—minus the bleeding. Last year, in a span of one week, more than 150 people overdosed on synthetic marijuana in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.

“We’re seeing very sick patients, individuals who have very low blood pressure, are unconscious, and they’re getting admitted to intensive care,” said C. Robert May, director of Lancaster Emergency Medical Services.

The year before that, 33 people suffered a suspected overdose of synthetic marijuana in Brooklyn, New York.

Some Lancaster health officials, like May, said they were unprepared for the outbreak; rather, they were more accustomed to treating people who had overdosed on heroin. May speculated that a high demand and low supply of heroin may have driven people to use synthetic marijuana, or that “some bad K2 has hit the street.”

According to the IDPH, the Chicago-area outbreak may be explained similarly. “Some of these substances may have been around for years but have reentered the market in altered chemical forms, or due to renewed popularity,” read its statement.

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