Photo via iStock/ kali9
Federal agents have arrested three men for selling synthetic marijuana that they believe is connected to two recent deaths and dozens of hospitalizations in Chicago. The Illinois Department of Public Health reports that over the past month, at least 56 people have been hospitalized in central Illinois after using synthetic cannabinoids. “All cases have required hospitalization for symptoms such as coughing up blood, blood in the urine, severe bloody nose, and/or bleeding gums,” health department officials said in a statement.
With two fatalities so far linked to this batch of fake weed, state health officials are concerned that more deaths will follow. "This is the first time we've seen an outbreak of this magnitude in the area," Melaney Arnold, spokeswoman for the Illinois Department of Public Health, said to CNN. "There could be additional deaths coming; it is difficult to say. We're doing whatever we can with regards to outreach to notify any who may be impacted by this outbreak."
On Monday, DEA agents arrested three men in connection with selling synthetic weed through their convenience store in Chicago’s West Side. Federal prosecutors have charged 48-year-old Fouad Masoud, 44-year-old Jad Allah, and 44-year-old Adil Khan Mohammed with conspiring to distribute and sell a controlled substance. Each of these men could face up to 20 years in jail if convicted on these charges.
An undercover officer allegedly purchased synthetic cannabis being sold as “Blue Giant,” “Crazy Monkey,” and “Matrix” from Masoud's shop. Chicago police then raided the store and discovered nearly 2,000 more grams of synthetic weed on the premises. Police then arrested Masoud at his home, and discovered an additional 2,900 grams of suspected synthetic weed labeled as “Purple Giant,” along with a grocery bag containing $280,000 in cash.
Although bearing a passing resemblance to actual cannabis, synthetic marijuana is a highly dangerous man-made drug. These products, often sold as “Spice” or “K2,” are created by spraying a mix of chemicals, which mimic the effects of cannabis on the brain's cannabinoid receptors, onto dried plant material. The resulting product can then be smoked or vaped in the same way as one would use real marijuana.
Every batch of synthetic marijuana can vary widely, as illegal chemists are free to add any chemicals that they wish to the mix. In this specific case, health authorities reported that the products seized from Masoud's store tested positive for brodifacoum, an anticoagulant commonly used as rat poison. Physicians in several states have found that synthetic marijuana can cause an increased heart rate, vomiting, agitation, hallucinations, heart attacks, or seizures, but this specific batch seems to be one of the most deadly mixtures encountered to date.
While local and federal law enforcement work to crack down on street-level synthetic weed dealers, local politicians are looking at a broader solution. Democratic gubernatorial candidate J.B. Pritzker, who will be running against Republican incumbent Gov. Bruce Rauner this fall, has said that he supports the creation of a legal, taxed recreational cannabis market in the state.
Pritzker may well have strong support in his endeavor, judging by the results of the recent “reeferendum,” in which two-thirds of Chicago-area voters formally expressed their support for full legalization. And if legal weed does indeed become available, the appeal of fake weed will hopefully diminish in favor of a legal, natural high.