By Brenda Goodman
WEDNESDAY, Jan. 22, 2014 (HealthDay News) -- Doctors in Colorado are sounding an alarm about the dangers of synthetic marijuana after seeing a surge of emergency cases tied to its use.
The products, sold under names like Black Mamba, Crazy Clown, K2 and Spice, sent at least 263 people for emergency treatment statewide over a one-month period last year.
"At the end of August, we started noting that patients were coming in with a very severe clinical illness," said Dr. Andrew Monte, an assistant professor in emergency medicine at the University of Colorado School of Medicine in Denver.
Monte said patients were delirious; they were fighting medical staff. Their pulses were racing and many went on to have seizures. Seven patients were put on ventilators in the intensive care unit after they developed trouble breathing. All survived.
Monte said the cases they counted before the outbreak ended Sept. 19 were probably just a fraction of the total.
"All these kinds of toxicologic outbreaks are far underreported, for a couple of reasons," he said.
First, not everybody who got sick went to the hospital. Monte thinks most people would try to stay at home and wait out the bad reaction, especially if their symptoms weren't as severe. Second, some patients probably weren't asked about drug use or wouldn't admit to it, making the final case count lower than it really was, he noted.
The surge in cases was reported in a letter published Jan. 23 in the New England Journal of Medicine and in the Dec. 13 Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Colorado isn't the only state to see a rise in poisonings tied to synthetic pot.
According to an earlier report from the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, the number of emergency department visits associated with use of synthetic pot more than doubled from 2010 to 2011, with the case count increasing from about 11,400 to more than 28,500 nationwide.
Synthetic marijuana is dried plant material that has been sprayed with laboratory-created psychoactive chemicals that mimic THC, the active ingredient in marijuana. It's sold in gas stations and head shops as an herbal product. But experts say there's nothing natural about it.
"This is much closer to meth [methamphetamine] than it is to marijuana," said Mike Van Dyke, chief of environmental epidemiology and occupational health at the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment in Denver.
"This is not a natural product. This is a chemical," said Van Dyke, who was involved in tracking the outbreak.
What's more, Van Dyke said, consumers never really know what they're buying.
"It's different from batch to batch. The whole chemical can be completely different from batch to batch, and you just don't know what you're getting when you buy these things," he said. "It's very dangerous."
Monte said most of the synthetic marijuana users treated in the ER last fall were men, and the majority were in their late 20s.
He said the typical user seems to be a person who needs to beat a drug test. The chemicals in synthetic marijuana aren't easily detected in the blood or urine.
For that reason, both experts said they didn't think synthetic marijuana use would drop now that the real thing could be legally purchased in the state.
Although synthetic marijuana is illegal under Drug Enforcement Agency law, Monte said the drug makers get around that by changing the chemicals and packaging.