As the popularity of marijuana continues to grow, so does the popularity of legal imitations – also known as synthetic marijuana.
Herbal blends containing a potpourri of marijuana-like chemicals are sold in small shops around the world and have left health regulators puzzling over how to deal with them.
But how did marijuana-like chemicals come to be so widely available in the first place? One government scientist knows the story well.“You can’t overdose on marijuana, but you might on these compounds.”John W. Huffman, Ph.D, is a retired Clemson University chemist whose initials, JWH, might ring some bells. That’s because JWH-018 is the name of one of the most common chemicals found in synthetic cannabis.
And the connection is no coincidence.
Huffman began his research on a class of chemicals found in marijuana, cannabinoids, in 1984. Over the course of 20 years – supported by generous grants from the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) – Huffman and his team developed more than 450 different synthetic cannabinoids that could mimic the effects of natural marijuana.
At first, these compounds provided other scientists with a way of studying marijuana without the bureaucratic inconveniences of trying to get hold of the real thing. While marijuana was, and still is, classified as a Schedule I substance – the most restrictive category of drugs – demand for research on the therapeutic effects of cannabinoids was growing fast.
At first, it seemed like a good idea.
Huffman recounted to the Los Angeles Times in 2011 that one of the compounds he created, JWH-133, was shown to fight brain tumors and non-melanoma skin cancers in mice.
But the lack of restrictions surrounding these new marijuana-like compounds meant that eventually his work would catch the attention of people with other plans – and not to Huffman’s surprise.
“I always had a hunch that someday somebody would say: ‘Hey, let’s try smoking them.’ And lo and behold, that’s what happened.”
As it turns out, anyone who wanted to recreate his synthetic inventions only had to follow the step-by-step instructions Huffman published along with his research. As he explained in a separate interview with ABC News, the instructions were relatively straightforward.
“JWH-018 can be made by a halfway decent undergraduate chemistry major in three steps using commercially available materials.”
Huffman first heard of people using JWH-018 and other synthetic cannabinoids to get high in 2008 – after someone sent him an article from a German magazine. Synthetic marijuana had sprung up in Europe about two years earlier, soon after Huffman published a paper on how to make the JWH compounds.“These things are dangerous.”
With surprising speed, the popularity of synthetic marijuana spread across the globe – where demand for marijuana along with harsh penalties for anyone caught with it made synthetic marijuana an easy sell. China, for example, would become a hotspot for the manufacturing of various synthetic products, including the well-known “Spice” brand.
But the availability of synthetic marijuana concerns Huffman, who says the highly potent compounds – the effects of JWH-018 can be 10 times stronger than THC – were never meant for human use.
“These things are dangerous – anybody who uses them is playing Russian roulette. They have profound psychological effects. We never intended them for human consumption.”
Then again, Huffman is well aware of the true reason why drugs that mimic marijuana are so popular.
“I talked to a marijuana provider from California, a doctor, a physician, and he said that in California, that these things are not near the problem they are in the rest of the country simply because they can get marijuana. And marijuana, even for recreational use is quite easy to get in California, and it’s essentially decriminalized. And marijuana is not nearly as dangerous as these compounds.”
While a number of countries – including the U.S. – have since banned compounds like JWH-018 and/or herbal blends that contain them, Huffman doesn’t see it as a permanent solution.
“We declared marijuana illegal in 1937. The federal government passed the law. Now, that really did a lot of good to keep people from smoking marijuana, didn’t it?”
Interestingly, Huffman says he supports the ban on synthetic marijuana.
But Huffman believes the real thing – which he says is safer – should be legal.
“You can’t overdose on marijuana, but you might on these compounds,” Huffman explained. “These things are dangerous, and marijuana isn’t, really.”