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Tainted synthetic marijuana linked to severe bleeding cases in Florida

man opening small gold package over a table with spice (synthetic marijuana) and small plastic dishes on it
(Image credit: Shutterstock)

Nearly 40 people in the Tampa Bay area in Florida have developed severe bleeding after using synthetic marijuana, or "spice," that they bought from dealers in the region.

Spice — also known as K2, among many other names — contains herbs, such as bay bean, that have been sprayed with synthetic cannabinoids intended to mimic the effects of THC (tetrahydrocannabinol), the psychoactive ingredient in cannabis, when smoked, according to Florida's Poison Control Centers. Most of the common active ingredients used in synthetic marijuana are illegal to buy, sell or possess in the United States, per the Poison Control website.

In Hillsborough County, Florida, cases of severe bleeding linked to spice use began cropping up in early December, according to a Dec. 6 Facebook post shared by Florida's Poison Information Centers. The most recent cases were reported Monday (Dec. 13), and tests indicated that some of the spice was contaminated with a rodenticide, or a chemical used to kill rats and mice, 10 Tampa Bay reported. 

Related: The five most poisonous substances: From polonium to mercury 

There haven't been any reports as to how or why rat poison ended up in the spice. That said, during a similar spice "outbreak" in 2018, an expert told Scientific American that people may sometimes add rat poison to spice in an effort to prolong the high produced by the drug. While enzymes in the liver work to break down the rat poison, the active ingredients in the spice hang around in the body longer than they would otherwise. But again, in the context of the current outbreak, it's unclear how the spice became contaminated or for what purpose, if any.

"So the commonality is that [the patients] are admitting to smoking 'spice,' or synthetic cannabinoids, and we've had laboratory confirmation that at least some of the samples we sent out are contaminated with rodenticide," Alfred Aleguas, co-managing director at the Tampa Florida Poison Control Information Center, told 10 Tampa Bay. 

The rat poison identified in the spice is an anticoagulant, meaning it interferes with blood clotting, Aleguas said. "So if you happen to cut yourself shaving, then you know how that would usually clot in a minute or two? It would bleed for hours," he said in an interview with News Channel 8. Those affected by the recent poisonings have reported bruising, nosebleeds, bleeding gums, heavy menstrual bleeding, vomiting of blood, and blood expelled in their stool or urine, 10 Tampa Bay reported.

So far, no one has died as a result of using the contaminated drug, but some people who were initially treated at a hospital had to come back after their symptoms returned, News Channel 8 reported. In 2018, a Tampa Bay area resident died during a spice-related outbreak that spanned several states and affected more than 300 people, Aleguas told News Channel 8. The current outbreak seems contained to Hillsborough County, as of yet. 

"The Poison Control Center sent clinical alerts to all Emergency Departments and has asked them to report new cases," Florida's Poison Control Centers said in a statement, according to News Channel 8. "We are closely monitoring this situation and working with public health agencies. Toxicologists and poison specialists are assisting hospitals in the treatment of these poisoned patients."

People who have used spice recently and start experiencing severe side effects such as bleeding are advised to report to the emergency room immediately, News Channel 8 reported. Experts from the Florida Poison Information Center are available at 1-800-222-1222 to "provide fast, free, confidential help for poison emergencies or questions."   

Originally published on Live Science.

Nicoletta Lanese

Nicoletta Lanese is a staff writer for Live Science covering health and medicine, along with an assortment of biology, animal, environment and climate stories. She holds degrees in neuroscience and dance from the University of Florida and a graduate certificate in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz. Her work has appeared in The Scientist Magazine, Science News, The San Jose Mercury News and Mongabay, among other outlets.