Colorado health officials say 3 deaths may be linked to synthetic marijuana; 75 people sickened

DENVER - Colorado health officials say three deaths may be linked to people smoking synthetic marijuana that has sickened 75 people and triggered an epidemiological investigation by local, state and federal officials.

"Initial reports show approximately 75 people who reported smoking a form of synthetic marijuana may have been seen at hospitals in the Denver metro area and Colorado Springs beginning in late August," Dr. Tista Ghosh, interim chief medical officer for the state, said Friday. "Several individuals were in intensive care and three deaths are being investigated as possibly associated."

"Don't wait for the results of this investigation. If you have synthetic marijuana, stop using it and destroy it," Dr. Ghosh warned.

Samuel Alvarado told 7NEWS his 26-year-old son, Samuel Jr., was rushed to Denver Health Medical Center Friday morning after he began suffering hallucinations.

 "All of a sudden, he was acting like he was playing football with somebody," Alvarado said. "All of a sudden, he was acting like he was walking a dog."

 "It is scary. It's really scary," the father said. "I thought I was going to lose him. I though he was going to die on us."

7NEWS asked a clerk at the store where Alvarado claims his son purchased the product.  The clerk denies selling the substance since it became illegal.

Mark Salley, spokesman for the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, said he didn't have information on where the suspected drug-linked deaths have occurred. The state health agency, Tri-County Health Department, Denver Health and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are involved in the investigation.

A four-member CDC team, including a toxicologist and an epidemiologist, are expected to arrive in Denver on Monday to assist in the investigation.

Meanwhile, Colorado public health officials say they're talking with their counterparts in Georgia, which has also had a jump in hospitalizations related to synthetic marijuana use.

As of Thursday, there have been 25 reported cases in the Brunswick, Ga., area and one case in Athens, Ga., said Nancy Nydam, spokeswoman for the Georgia Department of Public Health. But in all the Georgia cases, the drugs were purchased in Brunswick, she added.

"What we've heard is that they used a similar product and that the product may have come from Colorado but we haven't confirmed that yet," said Dr. Ghosh.

The illegal synthetic drug -- sold under the names "Spice," "K-2," "Black Mamba" and "Crazy Monkey" -- is often marketed as incense on the packaging, but users smoke the drug.

State and local health officials will be working with area hospitals to complete chart reviews of patients who were sickened by the synthetic marijuana. All investigatory records, including medical records, are confidential under state law and will remain so in this investigation, state officials said.

The state health agency says it routinely works with local public health agencies to investigate disease or illness outbreaks from communicable diseases and food borne illnesses. As with those investigations, the purpose of this investigation is to identify the cause of the illness so the public can be warned to avoid exposure.

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