Fourth death tied to 'fake weed' in Illinois

Synthetic cannabinoids laced with rat poison

By JACQUELINE HOWARD, CNN
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

A man prepares to smoke K2 or "Spice," a synthetic marijuana drug, along a street in East Harlem on Aug. 5, 2015, in New York City.

(CNN) - A fourth death in central Illinois has been connected to synthetic cannabinoid use, the Illinois Department of Public Health reported Tuesday.

Since March 7, synthetic cannabinoids have sickened 153 people and been blamed in four deaths: a woman in her 30s, a man in his 40s and two men in their 20s.

Synthetic cannabinoids across Chicago and parts of central Illinois have been found to contain brodifacoum, a rat poison, according to state health officials.

Earlier this month, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warned about life-threatening bleeding linked to the use of synthetic cannabinoids, often sold as spice, K2 or fake weed. A CDC "outbreak alert" noted that there were some bleeding cases also in Indiana, Maryland, Missouri and Wisconsin.

Now, the number of hospitalizations and deaths is continuing to climb.

"We continue to see new cases of individuals experiencing severe bleeding after using synthetic cannabinoids," Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Illinois Department of Public Health, said in a written statement Tuesday.

"Like so many other drugs, synthetic cannabinoids are addictive and people are not able to give them up. Alternatively, they think that it won't happen to them because they know their dealer or trust wherever they purchased the drugs," he said. "If you know someone who uses synthetic cannabinoids, tell them these are deadly products and try to help them get treatment."

The U.S. Attorney's Office charged three men with federal drug offenses and accused them of conspiring to sell synthetic cannabinoids at a Chicago convenience store, in connection with some of the cases.

Synthetic cannabinoids are human-made chemicals that can be sprinkled on dried, shredded plant material and smoked or consumed as vaporized liquids inhaled through an e-cigarette or other device.

Although these mind-altering chemicals are called cannabinoids, since they are designed to be similar to the chemicals found in marijuana, their actual impacts on the brain and body are much more powerful. They can cause serious side effects that are different from those of marijuana.

One study of a synthetic cannabinoid, published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2016, found that it was 85 times as potent as tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the mind-altering chemical in marijuana.

Since the synthetic cannabinoids in Illinois were found to contain rat poison, most of the hospitalizations have been related to unexplained bleeding, such as coughing up blood, blood in the urine, bloody nose and bleeding gums.

A chemical in rat poison prevents blood from clotting, causing the severe bleeding, according to the state health department.

Health officials warn that anyone who has a reaction to synthetic cannabinoids, such as severe bleeding, should call 911 or be taken to an emergency department immediately.

To treat the bleeding, doctors use high doses of vitamin K, up to 30 tablets a day for up to six months, which can help restore the blood's ability to clot.

Since this rising number of cases calls for a large amount of vitamin K and long duration of treatment -- costing up to thousands of dollars for each patient -- the Illinois Department of Public Health announced that it's working to find a way to place no financial burden on patients tied to the synthetic cannabinoids outbreak.

The Bausch Foundation, the charitable organization of Valeant Pharmaceuticals, donated nearly 800,000 tablets of vitamin K to the department.

"This donation will allow every individual who has experienced severe bleeding, as well as any future cases, to receive lifesaving treatment free of charge," Shah said in a separate news release Monday.

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