07 May The Truth About ‘Spice’ And Cannabis Substitutes From The Man Who Invented Them
John W. Huffman, the ‘JWH’ behind many synthetic cannabinoids, notably JWH-018, says we should consider legalising cannabis as a way to counter the problems with synthetic cannabinoids. “The synthetics are harmful, they’re dangerous,” he says, “and marijuana is not really dangerous.”
He has a doctor friend in California who was unaware of the synthetic compounds because in his state it’s so easy to get marijuana (medical marijuana is legal in California). “That’s what made me come to the conclusion that legalising marijuana is probably the best thing we could do – and tax it, so the government could make more money.”
Now 79 years old and retired, John W Huffman enjoys a quiet lifestyle in the mountains of North Carolina, with his wife, a university professor. He’s quick to laughter, self-deprecating at every turn, and he retains the sharp, analytical mind that helped him excel in a long and distinguished career as a research scientist.
Huffman invented or co-invented more than 450 chemical compounds that mimic the effects of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the psychoactive substance in marijuana. The compounds – which bear his initials – are the key ingredients in cannabis alternatives such as Kronic, K2 and Spice. Huffman, however, calls these compounds flat out dangerous.
“It’s like playing Russian roulette,” he says, “because you just don’t know what’s going to happen.”
He also doesn’t hide his contempt for the people who seek to make a profit from the likes of Spice.
“There are people on this earth who will do anything to make money, no matter what harm it does to other people,” he says. “These people are morally off base, completely.”
“These people, they know it is known that these things are harmful. These people are just like drug pushers who push cocaine and crystal meth and all the other nasty compounds.”
Huffman, who, in July, retired from his job as a professor of organic chemistry at South Carolina’s Clemson University and holds a PhD from Harvard, has been one of the few informed voices speaking out against the dangers of what are still largely unknown quantities. Only a small number of cannabinoid experts have stepped forward to educate the public on the ramifications of using the drugs.
That’s partly because there are few people qualified to speak about synthetic cannabinoids and little money to fund their work. In the US, Huffman is one of only “four or five” chemists who have made the compounds – three of whom are over 70 years old.
Huffman, who trained under Nobel Prize-winning chemist Professor Robert Burns Woodward, got involved in cannabinoid research in 1984, when he was funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) to synthesise THC carboxylic acid, which was used as a standard for checking marijuana use. At the time, the institute was paying US$50,000 a gram.
Later, at a meeting of the American Chemical Society, Huffman learned that NIDA wouldn’t fund synthetic organic chemistry – it would only fund drug development and receptor interactions (i.e. how compounds react with particular receptors in the brain). He had no experience in either field, but thought receptor interactions sounded more fun than drug development, and so, after three attempts, he managed to renew his grant. He became so interested in cannabinoid receptors that he worked in the field continuously until July this year.
Huffman’s research ultimately led to the development of more than 450 chemical compounds that “mimic THC and then some”. One of the most potent and easiest to make is JWH-018, which is 10 times as potent as THC and is the key ingredient in Spice.
“If you just look at the affinity for the receptor, this stuff is about 10 times as potent for the CB1 receptor as THC,” says Huffman. The brain’s CB1 receptor is linked to the central nervous system. In other words, JWH-018 is likely to be much more effective at getting you ‘high’ than plain old THC.
Huffman knows enough about the drugs to say bluntly: “These are dangerous compounds and should not be used.”
As a kind of unwilling figurehead for these synthetic compounds, he has had more than his fair share of feedback. He’s had a few people blame him for the development of the drugs – including in an unpleasant interview on Russian TV – but he’s actually had more people thank him for it. Wannabe manufacturers often email him expressing their admiration and asking for advice. He doesn’t answer them. The emails that make him most sad, however, are from parents whose teenage sons or daughters have used the drugs and suffered severe psychological problems.
“I never had a really good response to any of those,” he says. “There was one email I got from a woman whose nephew had smoked K2 or Spice and committed suicide. They are really, really nasty compounds.”
And he should know. Real cannabis is safer.
This article was adapted from a piece by Hamish McKenzie, originally published on the website of the New Zealand Drug Foundation.