The Spice of Death: The Science behind Tainted “Synthetic Marijuana”

By Devin Powell

Three people died and more than 100 have been sickened in the past few weeks after taking synthetic cannabinoids, human-made compounds that target the same brain receptors as marijuana. Symptoms documented by poison centers—first mostly in the Midwest, and now in Maryland—include unexplained bruising, coughing up blood, bleeding from the nose and gums, blood in urine and feces, and excessively heavy menstruation.

An ongoing investigation has identified a likely culprit in the blood of those affected: rat poison, specifically brodifacoum. Commonly sold in hardware stores, it is a dangerous anticoagulant that can also cause brain damage.

These are the first known instances of rat poison being found in synthetic cannabinoids—and how the toxin got there is unknown. Douglas Feinstein, a neuroscientist and brodifacoum expert developing new antidotes to this substance at the University of Illinois at Chicago, says the symptoms in these cases indicate high levels of exposure. That makes accidental contamination unlikely, he says, and suggests the poison may have been introduced deliberately. “We don’t know the exact doses these people are getting, but it’s a lot,” says Feinstein, who is currently analyzing blood samples from those affected. “It could have been added intentionally to prolong the high.”

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