A poisoning outbreak traced to synthetic cannabinoids sickened at least 52 people in Utah and sent 31 to the emergency room this past winter, reveals a new report released Thursday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But unlike other recent outbreaks, the victims weren’t trying to buy synthetic weed: They had bought what they thought was cannabis oil that only contained cannabidiol (CBD), the non-psychoactive ingredient of weed. And many had purchased these products from traditional smoke shops.
Around the beginning of last December, according to the CDC report, the Utah Poison Control Center came across five cases of people visiting the ER with symptoms of seizures, confusion, and hallucinations. Just before the symptoms began, the patients had all taken a product marketed to contain CBD. Products that contain only CBD are created to not have the psychoactive effects commonly associated with THC. Eventually, state and federal health and law enforcement officials formed a task force that found at least 52 similar cases had occurred within the state from October 2017 to the end of January 2018.
CBD is thought by some to help treat certain conditions, such as pain and depression (though evidence to support many of these claims is lacking). This April, a committee of outside experts assembled by the Food and Drug Administration unanimously voted to approve the first CBD-based drug to treat certain epileptic seizures. While CBD use can cause some unpleasant side effects, like nausea, it doesn’t cause the sort of symptoms doctors were seeing.
Eventually, lab testing of the products the patients had used found no traces of CBD, but they did find 4-cyano CUMYL-BUTINACA (4-CCB), a synthetic cannabinoid meant to mimic the effects of THC. Of the nine products that tested positive for 4-CCB, eight were branded “Yolo CBD oil.” But the products had no labels indicating who had manufactured them or even what ingredients they was supposed to contain. Four of the five patients whose blood was tested also had 4-CCB in their systems, as did an unopened CBD product purchased by the task force from the same store and brand a patient had bought.