Denver-area emergency room doctors report outbreak of illness from Spice, Black Mamba

DENVER - Doctors at the University of Colorado Hospital are warning about a possible bad batch of synthetic marijuana in the Denver metro area.

University Hospital said its emergency department has seen more than three patients Thursday and more than 20 very ill patients within the last few weeks.

Denver Health reports seeing three patients Wednesday and two on Tuesday.

Several of the patients arrived at the emergency room unresponsive. Each one of them was having a reaction to Spice and/or Black Mamba -- two forms of synthetic marijuana, according to Dr. Rich Zane.

Zane said other emergency rooms in the metro area are also seeing numerous patients with ill effects from the drugs.

"It's pretty clear that there's some very bad stuff out there right now," said Dr. Kennon Heard, a medical toxicologist and UCH. 

"Patients come in and have no gag reflex and are not breathing on their own," said Amanda Puhal, charge nurse at UCH. "And we have to put a tube down their throat to breathe for them."

"They are hallucinating, they are very much not themselves," said Dr. Jeffrey Sankoff, an emergency department physician at Denver Health. "The cannabinoid itself is not dangerous. The issue is that it's been contaminated or altered with other substances."

Synthetic marijuana hit the market several years ago, was banned and now appears to be back and worse than ever.

"Just out of the blue it's come back," said Sankoff.

"I've been in emergency medicine for the last 11 years, and I've never seen a problem like this before," said Puhal.

"In the past two weeks, in the hospitals throughout Denver, we've seen an outbreak of a large number of people who've gotten very severely ill," said Heard. "It's actually made in a lab and then sprayed on plant material and then people smoke it. And you never know exactly what you're getting."

Doctors at UCH say this potential bad batch, combined with a Phish concert this weekend at Dick's Sporting Goods Park could result in a particularly troubling spike.

"There have been reported fatalities in other states," said Sankoff. "In our cases, abusers have been out in traffic, they've jumped off buildings. Agitation to the point where they're totally out of mind."

"Psychotic episodes, suppressed breathing," said Puhal.

"The truth is that these people are sick enough that if they didn't get to health care, there's a good chance that some of them wouldn't have made it," said Heard.

Doctors say the marijuana substitutes sold under names like Spice, K2 and Black Mamba are typically made up of herbs, mixed with a powerful synthetic chemical that mimics the effects of THC, the active ingredient in marijuana.

While the packaging often calls these spices "incense" and says "not for human consumption," some people still smoke it.

Officials with the Rocky Mountain Poison Control Center told 7NEWS most of the drugs have not been tested on humans and were never meant to be ingested.

The substance was created in medical labs by a Clemson University researcher as a way to study the effects of marijuana on lab animals. It has a different molecular structure than marijuana, but was designed to stimulate the same receptors, according to the RMPCC.

In 2011, it became a misdemeanor to possess the substance in Colorado.