Designer Drug Chemist Looks Back

John Huffman, 79-year-old professor of organic chemistry, and his team created 460 synthetic cannabinoid compounds for tests on lab animals. They had been working on this project since 1984 under a $2 million federal drug research grant to study the interaction between drugs and brain receptors. Huffman observed that the brain receptors that respond to cannabis-like product are there to regulate appetite, nausea, mood, pain and inflammation. Some synthetic chemicals interact with the same brain receptors as cannabis, therefore they have been called “synthetic cannabinoids.”

Other than bonding to the same receptors, synthetic cannabinoids have little connection with THC, the main intoxicating ingredient in marijuana. But in the search for pain or inflammation relief, these synthetics could one day offer solutions which is why they are useful in research. Huffman himself warned against ingesting these synthetic cannabinoids because they have powerful effects on brain receptors and profound psychological consequences and they were never intended for human consumption.

When Huffman and his team published their findings from the lab experiments, there were people who saw opportunity to sell these chemicals in the illicit market. They mixed up the test chemicals, sprayed them on herbal material so it would resemble marijuana and sold it as ”synthetic cannabis.” Huffman never even knew about this development until he got a phone call in 2009. His formula JWH-018 produces effects 10 times stronger than those of THC. Some formulas are even more potent and offer a high risk of hallucinations and psychosis.

More recently in Louisiana, South Carolina, and a handful of other states, a similar problem occurred with bath saltsDrug rehabs are often ill-equipped to handle addicts of such synthetic drugs.

Huffman has received some emails assuming that he intentionally created these chemicals to act as marijuana substitutes. He asserts they never intended these chemicals to be used in this manner. He even warned against consuming synthetic marijuana. That warning has not stopped illicit chemists from using these formulas that were published in scientific journals.

These products are sold as “herbal incense” and smoked like traditional marijuana. Their use can produce seizures, hallucinations, tremors, paranoia, convulsions, high blood pressure and rapid heartbeat. Over the last two years, there have been over 4,500 calls into Poison Control Centers nationally from people using ”synthetic cannabis.”

Of the five cannabinoid compounds recently declared illegal by the DEA, the most commonly abused three were developed by Huffman and his team: JWH-018, JWH-073 and JWH-200.

Authorities in Louisiana recently seized 7,200 grams of synthetic marijuana intended for sale at $25 to $30 per packet, which would have netted the sellers about $130,000. Packages were labeled White Widow, Cajun Spice and Voodoo Remix. Rehabs in Louisiana are seeing a spike in people needing help for synthetic drug addiction.

Teen marijuana use has also been on the rise, according to reports from Alabama drug rehab programs, but these rising numbers do not even take into include synthetic cannabinoid use.

If you see synthetic cannabis on the shelves of head shops or convenience stores, leave it alone. The effects are far too dangerous to take such a risk. 

See the Column by the Los Angeles Times, October 2011 for more info.