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Synthetic marijuana linked to lung damage, comas in study of ICU patients

Synthetic marijuana products like Spice can cause lung damage and comas, according to a new study. Photo by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency
Synthetic marijuana products like Spice can cause lung damage and comas, according to a new study. Photo by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency

July 20 (UPI) -- Smoking or swallowing synthetic marijuana products can lead to serious health consequences, including severe lung damage and death, a study published Monday by JAMA Network Open found.

Eighteen of 30 patients admitted to two New York City hospitals after they used the drugs K2 and Spice, known as "fake weed," over a two-year period developed acute respiratory failure, while 21 required intubation, according to researchers at Mount Sinai Medical Center.

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In addition, 10 of the patients were in a coma when they arrived at the hospital, and six suffered seizures, the researchers said.

One of the patients, a woman with asthma, died, they said.

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"We want ... to address the inaccurate perception that these substances are safer or similar to marijuana," study co-author Ismini Kourouni, now a critical care physician at MetroHealth in Cleveland, told UPI.

"Synthetic cannabinoids like Spice or K2 are very different from marijuana [because] the effects ... are unpredictable and ... the impact on the patients' health can be tremendous and fatal," she said.

Kourouni and her colleagues were prompted to study the effects of these drugs after working as fellows on call in the intensive care units at Mount Sinai West and Mount Sinai St. Luke's hospitals in New York City on what later became known as "Black Friday."

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Over the course of one weekend in 2015, the hospitals treated 12 critically ill patients, many of whom were homeless and most of whom left against medical advice within 48 to 72 hours, Kourouni said.

K2 packets were found in the patients' clothes or were reported by the paramedics or bystanders who brought them in for evaluation, she said.

Synthetic marijuana is illegal in most states, but it is still sold online and in many stores across the country, particularly in low-income areas, according to Kourouni.

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It's appealing, particularly to young people and the homeless, because it is inexpensive, she said.

Of the 30 patients included in their study, 24 were male, the researchers said. The patients ranged in age from 21 to 59, they said.

In all, 10 of the patients arrived at the ICU in "extreme agitation" and two required high doses of sedatives to "prevent self-harm," according to the researchers.

In addition, 12 had excess carbon dioxide in their blood, the researchers said.

"Synthetic cannabinoids are not a safer or cheaper alternative to marijuana, and we strongly advise against any experimentation with these substances," Kourouni said.

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