Health department: Synthetic marijuana may be linked to 3 Colorado deaths

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DENVER -- Synthetic marijuana, which is expected to remain an illicit substance even in the wake of Amendment 64, may be linked to three deaths in the state of Colorado in the past month, according to the Colorado Department of Public Heath and Environment.

In a joint press release, issued in conjunction with the Tri-County Health Department, Denver Health and the Center for Disease Control, the health department said it has launched an "epidemiological investigation" after several area hospitals have reported seeing dozens of patients suffering from the effects of synthetic marijuana.

"Initial reports show approximately 75 people who reported smoking a form of synthetic marijuana may have been seen at hospitals in the Denver metro area and Colorado Springs beginning in late August," said Dr. Tista Ghosh, interim chief medical officer for the state.

Of those 75 people, three have died. The health department is now saying those deaths "are being investigated as possibly associated" to synthetic marijuana.

Symptoms have varied Ghosh said. "We've seen reports of agitation, delirium, confusion, psychosis and even unresponsiveness and seizures," she said.

As part of that investigation, an attempt will be made to to identify whether these patients were sickened by the same product or different products, the health department stated.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will arrive on Monday to assist in the investigation.

The press release warned that synthetic marijuana is marked under many names, including Black Mamba, Monkey Spice, K2, Twilight, Spice and Herbal Incense.

"No single product has been identified as the source for these reported illnesses," the press release stated. "Don't wait for the results of this investigation. If you have synthetic marijuana, stop using it and destroy it."

The burgeoning issues with synthetic marijuana were first mentioned by the University of Colorado Hospital, which said it was treating 20 patients for synthetic marijuana on Aug. 29.

The Health Department's Friday press release did not give any indication whether the harmful batches of synthetic marijuana are being illegally sold at a local dispensary. However, most have speculated that synthetic marijuana will remain illegal in Colorado even after the passage of Amendment 64, which legalized marijuana for recreational use for individuals over the age of 21.

Synthetic marijuana is typically comprised of herbs and a chemical that produces side effects similar to those produced by THC, the active ingredient in natural marijuana.

"It's a designer drug that's meant to mimic marijuana," Ghosh said. Manufacturers "often fiddle with the chemical composition of it so we are not sure what is in this particular combination that's causing people to get sick."

Doctors have warned that the side effects associated with synthetic marijuana can be much more severe. One often-cited cautionary tale involves a Texas 16-year-old who went brain dead after using the substance.