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While synthetic marijuana is smoked just like real marijuana, the two drugs have little in common. Synthetic marijuana is physically addicting and has been known to cause psychotic episodes.  

BLOOMINGTON — Two people have died in Illinois, including one from Peoria, apparently as a result of severe bleeding from using synthetic cannabinoids, sometimes called Spice, K2 or fake weed, health officials said Monday.

The other person who died was was from the Chicago area, said Illinois Department of Public Health spokeswoman Melaney Arnold.

Peoria County Coroner Jamie Harwood issued a statement that said the death of a 22-year-old male Peoria resident was "from suspected K2 usage." Cause of death can't be confirmed until after autopsy results and toxicology testing, Harwood said.

Statewide, since the outbreak began March 7, 56 people have been hospitalized from severe bleeding and reported using synthetic cannabinoids, the state health department said. Their symptoms that include coughing up blood, blood in the urine, severe bloody nose or bleeding gums. Nine have tested positive for brodifacoum, a lethal anticoagulant often used as rat poison.

None of those cases were reported in Macon County. One is from McLean County, 12 are from Tazewell and 14 from Peoria, Arnold said. 

"We continue to see the number of cases rise," IDPH Director Dr. Nirav Shah said in a statement. "IDPH does not know how much contaminated product is circulating or where."

In Decatur, law enforcement agencies have been monitoring the use of K2, or synthetic weed, with concern for years. In May 2016, police and deputies from the Macon County Sheriff’s Office undertook a major crackdown on the distribution and sale of K2, executing 10 search warrants at Decatur homes and businesses and seizing 10,000 packages of the drug. Decatur Police Chief Jim Getz, at the time serving in an interim role, referred to the spread of the drug as an “epidemic.”

Lt. Jamie Belcher said Monday that the Macon County Sheriff's Office has seen the drug in several traffic stops. 

"We’ve seized the actual K2 packets," he said. "Unfortunately, unless it’s got the chemicals in it that are banned, we can’t arrest the person for it." 

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Belcher 

Belcher said the suspected drugs must be sent to the Illinois State Police crime lab and deputies must wait for results to make an arrest, which can take months.

People who buy the drug also don't know what chemicals it contains, he said. "I cannot foresee somebody saying, 'Hey, this has got rat poison in it. Let’s go ahead and smoke this.'" 

No one should use synthetic marijuana, he said, and parents who find something they suspect might be it should dispose of the drug or contact law enforcement. 

Street crimes and narcotics Sgt. Toby Williams said in a phone interview last month that he could not discuss if there were any ongoing local investigations, but said K2 remains a problem in the community.

“We are not the only community dealing with it,” he said. “(It is) fairly common in most of the communities in our area.”

The homeless population has been especially affected in Decatur, Jeff Mueller, executive director of the Oasis Day Center, said in March. Oasis is a drop-in facility near downtown Decatur that provides services for the homeless from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m., seven days a week.

Mueller said 13 people who had taken K2 experienced what he described as overdoses at or near the center over a few days in early February. He said the drug is a “very serious issue” among the local homeless community.

“We have not had any deaths yet. I say yet because it scares me to death,” he said. “It’s literally lethal.”

The drug puts people into a comatose-like state where people stand upright and appear very still, Mueller said. Then, he said, the users would fall over and begin seizing and vomiting. At one point, three people were down at once.

“I was dealing with one who had dropped, and then I was dealing with one in the back,” Mueller said. “I turned him on his side to keep from choking, (and then) I heard ‘another one down.’ I had to turn him to keep from choking.”

Mueller addressed the issue by suspending anyone who uses K2 on the property for 30 days. The clients could come back if they promised not to do drugs at the center again or create trouble.

“This isn’t a forever,” he said. “They just have to know they are not going to die here.”

Synthetic cannabinoids are human-made chemicals that are sprayed onto dried plant material. They may be smoked or sold as liquids to be vaporized in e-cigarettes and other devices.

The chemicals are called cannabinoids because they are similar to chemicals found in the marijuana plant, but the health effects from using synthetic cannabinoids can be unpredictable, harmful and deadly, the state health department said. It is investigating where the products that have sickened people have been obtained.

Synthetic cannabinoids may be found in convenience stores, gas stations, drug paraphernalia shops, novelty shops and online.

"If you are using synthetic cannabinoids, stop," said Sara Sparkman, communications manager for the Tazewell County Health Department. "If you have purchased it, don't use it.

"If you have used it and experience symptoms such as unexplained bruising, bleeding gums, a nose bleed that doesn't stop, abdominal pain or the worst headache of your life, get to an emergency department or call 911 because this bleeding won't stop on its own," Sparkman said. "It can be treated if it's caught early enough. It also can be fatal."

Follow Paul Swiech on Twitter: @pg_swiech

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