The contaminant in a deadly batch of synthetic marijuana that has killed three people and sent more than 100 to Illinois emergency rooms with bleeding eyes, ears, gums and noses, as well as symptoms including kidney failure, seizures, psychosis and catatonia, has been identified by toxicologists as rat poison.
Most popularly known as Spice or K2, synthetic marijuana is often sold in sealed packages labeled with names like Matrix, Blue Giant, Mr. Nice Guy, Crazy Monkey, Scooby Snax, Black Mamba, Mojo and Annihilation (and about 600 other exotic monikers), then marketed to be smoked in leaf form, vaped in liquid form or brewed as a tea. Some packaging is misleadingly labeled as "incense" or "potpourri" and comes with a disclaimer saying it's not suitable for human consumption.
It produces a high falsely purported to be similar to real marijuana, so we know why people use this stuff, but what exactly is it?
Also known as designer cannabinoids, synthetic marijuana is engineered by pseudo chemists in covert labs with no quality control or oversight. Using unknown chemicals in unknown concentrations that differ from batch to batch, these random man-made compounds, concocted by guesswork, permeate the final product with life-threatening toxins. These toxins can induce unpredictable symptoms like profuse bleeding caused by the highly lethal anticoagulant, or blood-thinner, brodifacoum, found in rat poison.
"We are currently seeing people who are bleeding after using synthetic pot because of it being laced with a powerful and long acting rat poison," says Ziad Kazzi, M.D., medical toxicologist and emergency medicine physician at Emory University, in an email. "This has primarily occurred in Illinois, but we have reports from Indiana, Maryland, Missouri and Wisconsin according to the health departments and a recent communication by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)."
Synthetic marijuana is by no means a substitute for actual marijuana. In fact, it's nothing like marijuana, or cannabis sativa, the herbaceous plant that grows in nature. Rather, fake weed gets the name synthetic marijuana because the man-made substances used to create it are loosely related chemically to tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the psychoactive ingredient found in pot.
These spurious THC-like chemicals are sprayed onto dried plant material and chopped up herbs in a mixture of colors including brown, red, beige and cream. It can mimic the look and smell of marijuana, but buyer beware, lest you become a human guinea pig without informed consent, or worse, a corpse.
"Synthetic pot is dangerous," says Kazzi. "It is not the natural THC that is found in plants. These dangerous chemicals are made in a lab and can have bad effects. Do not use synthetic pot! It is not what you think it is!"