The Illinois Department of Public Health has issued a warning over what they’re calling an “outbreak” of adverse reactions related to synthetic cannabinoid products.
Between March 7 and April 3, Illinois public health officials recorded 70 reports of severe reactions to these synthetic products, including two deaths.
Other adverse effects include coughing up blood, bloody urine, and bloody noses. The majority of these cases occurred in Chicago, Peoria County, and Tazewell County.
“We continue to see the number of cases rise,” Illinois Public Health Director Dr. Nirav D. Shah, JD, said in a statement. “IDPH is continuing to work with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, along with other partners, to try to identify common products. Without more information, IDPH does not know how much contaminated product is circulating or where. We strongly urge everyone not to use synthetic cannabinoids.”
Synthetic cannabinoids, often known as synthetic pot, K2, or Spice, are synthesized chemicals that are similar but not identical to the natural cannabinoids that are found in marijuana plants.
The Illinois Public Health website notes that these products “may affect the brain much more powerfully than marijuana; their actual effects can be unpredictable and, in some cases, more dangerous or even life-threatening.”
In nine of the Illinois cases, synthetic products tested positive for brodifacoum, a deadly compound commonly used as rat poison.
“These synthetic cannabinoids are not cannabis. They’re synthetic chemicals, some of which can be lethal, that have no relation to natural cannabis whatsoever,” Chris Kilham, an author and educator who promotes plant-based medicines, told Healthline.
While these products promise to provide a similar effect to the one provided by marijuana, the lack of regulation and oversight makes them especially dangerous, according to an advocate for marijuana law reform.
“The risks to health posed by these so-called ‘synthetic marijuana’ products come largely from the fact that they are unregulated, clandestinely produced chemical products that are subject to no standardization, quality control, or oversight,” Paul Armentano, deputy director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), told Healthline.
Shining a light on prohibition
Kilham draws a firm distinction between natural cannabinoids and the lab-synthesized versions that have been getting people sick.
“Cannabinoids as a class — and there are many of them, over a hundred — exist in nature,” he said. “We know their structure and we also know that not one single human being in history has ever died from them. We’ve co-evolved with plants for millions of years. They’re part of our biology.”
The fact that natural marijuana has a far better safety record than lab-synthesized cannabinoids begs an obvious question: Why do these synthetic products exist in the first place?
Since synthetic products are often marketed as being legal and undetectable on drug tests, they’ve become popular in states where recreational marijuana use is still illegal.
“The growing popularity of these unregulated products is a predictable outgrowth of criminal marijuana prohibition,” said Armentano. “As prohibition is apt to do, it has driven the production of a commodity into the hands of unregulated, unknown dealers, maximized the potential drug effect, and in doing so, has also increased the risks to health associated with the ingestion of said commodity.”
Armentano also points out that retired professor John W. Huffman, the man who invented synthetic cannabinoids, is on record as saying that natural marijuana is far safer than the synthetic version, and is in favor of full federal legalization.
Right now, a majority of states have legalized marijuana for medical use, although only eight states have legalized it for recreational use. In Illinois, where the recent outbreak occurred, recreational use is still illegal, although medical use was legalized in 2013.
“Criminalization has created a scenario where the consumer is faced with potentially greater health risks from this alternative product than they would if they simply had regulated access to the product that they truly desired, cannabis,” said Armentano. “In fact, surveys of consumers of so-called ‘synthetic marijuana’ products acknowledge their preference for cannabis, and further opine that the primary perceived appeal of these alternative products is that they fail to be detectable on standard drug tests.”
For Armentano, the answer to the problem is straightforward: Legalize marijuana, so lawmakers can regulate its use, hopefully cutting back on the demand for dangerous synthetic products.
“Regulating adult cannabis use and legalizing its regulated access, as eight states have now done, would significantly mitigate any existing consumer market demand for these inferior, and yet far more dangerous, marijuana alternatives,” he said.
“I think access to cannabis — actual cannabis — taking it out of a so-called black market or gray market, is definitely an advance in terms of helping to distract people from non-cannabis compounds that are being made in a lab,” said Kilham. “To have access to real cannabis — especially to have access to cannabis that conforms to strict pesticide and agripoison standards — is unquestionably a benefit to public health.”
Containing the crisis
In Illinois, health officials are still trying to limit the effects of the outbreak.
They’re tracking cases on their website, updating the information every afternoon.
They’re advising people who have used these synthetic products — which can come in the form of shredded plant material or liquids — not only to stop using them, but also to be aware of the adverse effects.
“If you have used any of this product in the past month, do not use it,” says an advisory on the IDPH website. “If you have used any of these products, and start experiencing severe, unexplained bleeding or bruising, please have someone take you to the hospital immediately or call 911. Do not walk or drive yourself. Tell your healthcare providers about the possible link between your symptoms and synthetic cannabinoid use.”