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An ingredient of rat poison was found in synthetic cannabis that made people in the United States ill. Photo: fredsharples

An ingredient of rat poison was found in synthetic cannabis that made people in the United States ill. Photo: fredsharples

Synthetic marijuana, properly known as synthetic cannabinoids, but hey, we’re speaking taboidese, acts on those brain receptors that are affected by proper cannabis. It usually goes undetected by drug testing, making it popular with poor people, those who are banged up and the military. It was recently responsible for the deaths of three people and sickening of over 100 in the United States. Symptoms have included bleeding from the ears, eyes, gums and nose, blood in the urine and faeces, coughing up blood, kidney failure, severe nose bleeds, very heavy menstruation and unexplained bruising,

What was the cause and how did it get there?

The blood of people sickened was found to contain brodifacoum, an anti-coagulant used in rat poison that is often sold by hardware stores. Quite how it got into synthetic marijuana is unknown, but we can take a guess.

Neuroscientist Douglas Feinstein, an expert in brodifacoum who is working on developing antidotes to it at Chicago’s University of Illinois and has analysed blood samples from the stricken people, believes the symptoms exhibited in these instances indicate that the level of exposure was high, making accidental contamination improbable – the poison was likely put there deliberately.

Feinstein suggested the brodifacoum was introduced to extend the high: there have been reports of drug users consuming rat poison in order to remain high for longer after taking cannabis or cocaine because the toxin engages liver enzymes that metabolise the drugs.

”Not for human consumption”

When sold in shops or over the internet, synthetic marijuana products are labelled as “not for human consumption.” In the thousands of US hospital cases arising from synthetic marijuana where people ignored the warning on the packet, doctors have recorded a wide selection of problems, including brain bleeding, heart attacks, seizures and strokes. In 2016, dozens of New Yorkers ended up in hospital and schlumped. Earlier in 2018, dozens of US soldiers wound up in hospital after they vaped synthetic cannabinoid oil. William Burgin, a professor of the University of South Florida and neurologist, bewailed that the side effects of this drug are unknown, making it “a bag of nightmares” for medical staff.

While the psychoactive ingredient of cannabis, tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), binds weakly to the brain’s cannabinoid receptors, synthetic marijuana can exert an iron grip and be a hundred times as potent as natural cannabis. The chemical structure of synthetic marijuana can be vastly different to THC, presenting a problem for regulation. Five of the first of these compounds to appear were banned by the US Drug Enforcement Agency in 2011, and 15 were outlawed by Congress in 2012. So makers got creative, using compounds that were only slightly different.

There are now over 150 different kinds of synthetic marijuana available. Jeff Lapoint, the senior toxicologist of Kaiser Permanente San Diego Medical Centre, compared the situation to the game, Whac-a-Mole (and that’s how to spell it): “Make one thing illegal, and the next week something new pops up.” Due to the novelty of the compounds, users, meanwhile, are, according to Lapoint, playing “Russian roulette.” Best stick to regular cannabis.

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