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Deaths and Illness Rise in Synthetic-Marijuana Outbreak

Six cases reported in Wisconsin from March 30 to April 18

MADISON, Wis. – Another state has reported consumers suffering from severe bleeding after consuming or likely consuming synthetic cannabinoids. Between March 30 and April 18, the Wisconsin Department of Public Health received six cases of severe bleeding; half confirmed using synthetic cannabinoids beforehand, while the other 50% are “probable” to have used the substances. 

These cases extend the number of bleeding outbreaks within recent months caused by synthetic cannabinoid use. Since March 7, the Illinois Department of Public Health (IDPH) has received 153 cases of severe bleeding, including three deaths, after confirmed synthetic cannabinoid use. Of the 153 cases, 123 of them were reported in the city of Chicago and Peoria and Tazewell counties; more than a third (37%) were from individuals ages 25 to 34. Symptoms have included coughing up blood, blood in urine, bloody noses and bleeding gums. The IDPH issued official warnings of the “fake weed” products in late March.

This isn’t the first incidence of cannabinoids gone wrong. In March 2012, the Wyoming Department of Health reported three individuals being hospitalized—all whom used of synthetic cannabinoids—for unexplained kidney injuries. In 2013, more than 200 people in Colorado were hospitalized for synthetic cannabinoid-related illnesses over a four-week period. And in April 2015, the Mississippi Department of Public Health reported more than 700 cases of similar illnesses, including 11 deaths.

Although synthetic cannabinoids are sold in various convenience stores, recent legal actions hint at their potential removal from shelves. In June 2016, a Wisconsin attorney general and the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection sued Springfield, Va.-based distributor Capitol Petroleum and its principal, Farooq Shahzad, for allegedly selling cannabinoids—a violation of Wisconsin’s prohibition on fraudulent drug advertising. In January 2018, the Wisconsin Department of Justice officially prohibited Capitol Petroleum and Shahzad from selling or assisting in the sale of synthetic cannabinoids.

And in early April 2018, federal prosecutors charged the owner of Chicago-based convenience store King Mini Mart and two of his employees with selling synthetic cannabinoids—roughly 80 packages per day. Testing of the products revealed brodifacoum, a toxic substance frequently used in rat poison, the Associated Press reported. The men face up to 20 years in prison if convicted.

Synthetic cannabinoids are man-made chemicals meant to mimic the effects of marijuana. These chemicals are sprayed on dried, shredded plants and can be smoked or sold as liquids used in e-cigarettes and other devices. They go by brand names such as K2, Spice, Black Mamba, Bombay Blue, Genie and Zohai.

Melaney Arnold, a spokesperson for the IDPH, told CNN that “there could be additional deaths coming” from synthetic cannabinoids.

"We're doing whatever we can with regards to outreach to notify any who may be impacted by this outbreak,” she said.

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