Mass overdose in Connecticut shines spotlight on dangers of synthetic marijuana

CHICAGO — At least 76 people overdosed in New Haven, Connecticut, using synthetic marijuana.

The dangers of the man-made drug are on the rise. Synthetic marijuana is a drug designed to mimic the effects of the naturally occurring psychoactive ingredient in marijuana. To get the effect, dried, shredded plant materials are sprayed with chemicals and drugs. Increasingly it is being laced with stronger drugs including opioids like fentanyl. And it’s having deadly results.

It’s billed as a natural form of marijuana, and as such, it is not regulated. Users often have no idea what they are getting.

“These products are unregulated. We don’t know what is in them. At any time, they could be laced with something that is life threatening.” said Dr Jenny Lu, a toxicologist at Stroger Hospital.

Unsuspecting people, young and old, simply fell to the ground in Connecticut near Yale University Wednesday night. Overdoses continued into Thursday. Some lost consciousness, others began vomiting or were otherwise lethargic. In all nearly 80 people got sick, several in serious condition. Some who tested positive for the powerful sedative fentanyl were giving the anti-overdose drug naloxone.

“With opioids, people come with a certain clinical picture, whereas with K2, you can present with anything," Dr. Lu said. "You may look like a psychiatric patient or a regular sick patient. People complain about anxiety, confusion. So really the picture with synthetic cannabinoids, it’s going to vary.”

Closer to home, 164 people were treated in Illinois in the spring. Four died after taking K2 laced with rat poison. Surviving patients are still being treated with vitamin k to offset the effects.

“They are still having medical complications from it. They are still at risk for bleeding because it’s a rat poison that can last weeks to months in your system," Dr. Lu said.

Hospitalizations and calls to poison control centers are skyrocketing. But overdose in not the only danger. A recent study in the British Medical Journal suggested K2 may boost the risk for stroke in young users. other research has linked synthetic cannabis to sustained anxiety, psychotic episodes. rapid or slowed heartbeat, low blood pressure, kidney damage, inflamed arteries and chest pain.

K2 is marketed as an herbal product. Even though many of the active chemicals found in synthetic marijuana are regulated, manufacturers often change the formulation to avoid detection and regulation. That’s why experts say it is so dangerous.