The five Winnebago County residents sickened after ingesting tainted synthetic cannabinoids might be considered lucky: They lived and can get lengthy and expensive treatment for free.
But other such drug users might not be so fortunate. Health professionals are advising them to get to the emergency room right away if they have severe or unexplained bleeding or bruising.
The Winnebago County Health Department said five residents here ingested the mind-altering, weed-like drug laced with rat poison between March 7 and Thursday. Four individuals in central Illinois died after using the same tainted drug, according to the Illinois Department of Public Health.
For survivors, the vitamin K treatment to restore blood-clotting is being provided free.
The Bausch Foundation, the charitable arm of Valeant Pharmaceuticals International, donated 800,000 tablets of the lifesaving treatment to the Illinois Department of Public Health.
These individuals will need to take up to 30 tablets a day for up to six months, which could cost several thousands of dollars,” IDPH Director Dr. Nirav D. Shah said in a news release. As of Friday, 157 cases had been reported across the state.
A spokesman for Mercyhealth Hospital-Rockton Avenue Campus said privacy rules prevented him from saying whether the local residents affected were treated at the hospital.
But Dr. Jason Bredenkamp, chairman of the hospital’s emergency medical department, told me that early notification by the health agency had alerted emergency medical providers to be on the lookout for patients with bleeding problems.
“This is the first mass casualty incident associated with synthetic K2 or ‘Spice,’” Bredenkamp said. “It’s not because of the synthetic marijuana, but because it was laced with a substance used in rat poison that can cause significant bleeding issues.”
Synthetic cannabinoids are human-made chemicals sprayed on dried plant material. They are called cannabinoids because they act on the same brain cell receptors as a main active ingredient in cannabis.
“The chemical found in rat poison — brodifacoum — inhibits blood-clotting, Bredenkamp said. “You start bleeding — nosebleeds, bleeding when you brush your teeth, vomiting blood, passing blood in urine, or just easy bruising,” he said.
“My advice would be that any otherwise healthy person not on a blood thinner (like Coumadin) with a history of recent synthetic marijuana use err on the side of caution” and seek treatment, he said. “What we worry about is bleeding in the brain, chest, abdomen, where we can’t easily get to it.
“Basically, patients have bled out internally.”
Manufacturers of the synthetic drugs marketed as fake weed, known as K2 or “Spice,” change the recipe of their products to stay one step ahead of a law that prevents sales of such products with certain chemicals, authorities say. Drug users can get synthetic cannabinoids at smoke shops and from dealers and friends. Three men accused of selling the deadly synthetic marijuana at a mini-mart in Chicago’s North Lawndale neighborhood appeared in a Chicago court Tuesday.
“The lure is (consumers think) ‘It’s legal,’” Bredenkamp said. “Everybody is looking for this legal high, if it’s synthetic marijuana or bath salts, but they’re not FDA-regulated, and who knows what you are ingesting.”
Bath salts is another designer drug. “We see people all the time with really bad experiences with bath salts, hallucinating.” Sometimes, he said, we have to “sedate them or put them on life support.”
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that people who ingest synthetic cannabinoid products can react with rapid heart rate, vomiting, agitation, confusion and hallucinations.
“It’s a dangerous risk any time you are using these substances to get high,” Bredenkamp said.