By Jacque Wilson
(CNN) -- Three people in Colorado may have died after smoking synthetic marijuana, state health officials fear. The Colorado Department of Public Health has launched an investigation into an outbreak of illnesses at hospitals that may be tied to the dangerous substance.
"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," said Dr. Tista Ghosh, interim chief medical officer for the state, in a written statement. "Several individuals were in intensive care and three deaths are being investigated as possibly associated."
The Colorado Department of Health, with help from local health officials and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, will attempt to figure out if the synthetic marijuana is to blame, and if so, whether all the patients were sickened by the same product or different ones.
But "don't wait for the results of this investigation," Ghosh urged. "If you have synthetic marijuana, stop using it and destroy it."
Known as K2, Spice, Black Mamba, Mr. Smiley and Blaze, among other things, synthetic marijuana can have more serious consequences than regular marijuana, which is legal in Colorado. These synthetic cannabinoids are a blend of plant and herbal materials that have been sprayed with chemicals, producing an extra toxicity, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
Sold most often on the Internet, synthetic marijuana produces euphoric and psychoactive effects similar to those associated with marijuana. But doctors say there are additional side effects that may be particularly dangerous. The drug can leave patients catatonic and listless. And what makes matters worse, very little is known about synthetic marijuana or how to treat an adverse reaction or overdose.
According to the Drug Enforcement Administration, the number of calls to poison centers related to synthetic drugs soared from about 3,200 in 2010 to more than 13,000 in 2011.
"Easy access and the misperception that Spice products are 'natural' and therefore harmless have likely contributed to their popularity," the NIDA website states. "Another selling point is that the chemicals used in Spice are not easily detected in standard drug tests."
Because the chemicals used in these products have a high potential for abuse and no medical benefit, the DEA has designated five of the most common active chemicals frequently found in synthetic marijuana as Schedule I controlled substances, making it illegal to sell, buy, or possess them. But manufacturers seem to be changing the chemical compounds as fast as lawmakers enact legislation to ban them.
The CDC was sending a team of four to assist the investigation.
CNN's Miriam Falco contributed to this report.
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