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July 16, 2017

In three days, Pennsylvania county saw more than 100 synthetic marijuana overdoses

Health officials advise emergency rooms across the state

In a span of just three days earlier this month, more than 100 people were treated for synthetic marijuana overdoses in Lancaster County, renewing fears about the drug's popularity as the state continues to battle an ongoing opioid epidemic.

First responders in Lancaster County reportedly responded to at least 125 cases between July 7-12, though fortunately none of the overdoses proved fatal. More than a hundred of those incidents occurred during the first three days of that stretch. 

Synthetic marijuana — commonly sold as K2, Spice and Black Mamba — has increasingly become a dangerous, borderline legal alternative to marijuana, which remains illicit for recreational use in Pennsylvania.

The drug, a chemical analog that binds to the brain's THC's receptors, comes in a variety of forms that mix shredded plant material, herbs and spices with lab-developed cannabinoids. Research has shown synthetic marijuana can range from 2-100 times more powerful than organic marijuana, inducing symptoms that can include vomiting, chest pain, vision blackout and psychosis.

""Heroin is normally the issue but in the last week there's been an overdose of synthetic marijuana," Lancaster Emergency Medical Services director C. Robert May told CNN. "The assumption is that heroin is not readily available, so people are turning to K2."

One individual required nine emergency responses over a period of 24 hours, May said.

Working with the National Poison Data System, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) tracked a massive surge in poison calls related to synthetic marijuana in recent years, including a 229 percent jump between 2014 and 2015. Most of those calls involved young people in their 20's reporting agitation or a rapid heart beat.

Manufacturers of synthetic marijuana have been able to outpace federal regulators by tweaking their formulas and masking the psychoactive components of their changing blends. The instability in production methods can result in extremely potent "hot spots" that intensify the physical effects of the drug, which is often found at novelty and paraphernalia shops, or purchased online. 

May said the spike in overdose is beginning to place a heavy burden on Lancaster County Emergency Services, a non-profit that attends to a full range of emergencies.

The incidents in Lancaster County captured the attention of Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf, whose administration warned residents of the dangers of synthetic marijuana.

“Synthetic drugs like K2 make treating overdoses especially difficult because we don’t know what chemicals or other drugs were used to make them,” said physician general Dr. Rachel Levine. “The life-saving drug naloxone is not effective in reversing overdoses from K2 or other synthetic drugs. First responders and emergency rooms across the state are being notified of these overdoses and what to look for in their communities.”

If someone you know has used synthetic marijuana and needs help, the CDC recommends calling a personal physician, 911 or a local poison control center at 1-800-222-1222.