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Scientist's research produces a dangerous high

John W. Huffman created synthetic marijuana for tests on lab animals. His formulas ended up in the hands of head shops, which have created substances that can lead to seizures, hallucinations and convulsions.

September 28, 2011|By David Zucchino, Los Angeles Times
  • John W. Huffman, 79, says of the compounds he created: "These things are dangerous  anybody who uses them is playing Russian roulette. They have profound psychological effects. We never intended them for human consumption."
John W. Huffman, 79, says of the compounds he created: "These things… (Los Angeles Times, David…)

Reporting from Sylva, N.C. — John W. Huffman is a bearded, elfin man, a professor of organic chemistry who runs model trains in his basement and tinkers with antique cars. At 79, he walks a bit unsteadily after a couple of nasty falls.

Relaxing on his back porch in the Nantahala National Forest, watching hummingbirds flit across his rose beds, Huffman looks every bit the wise, venerable academic in repose.

But this courtly scientist unwittingly contributed to the spread of "designer marijuana" so potent that the Drug Enforcement Administration has declared some of what he created illegal.

Huffman's years of scientific research at Clemson University on the interaction between drugs and brain receptors led to so-called fake marijuana with effects far more powerful — and dangerous — than garden-variety marijuana. "Spice," "K-2," "Skunk" and similar products made using the chemical compounds he formulated have surged in popularity in recent years.

That prompted the Drug Enforcement Administration in March to temporarily list "stealth marijuana" products containing three cannabinoid compounds invented by Huffman as Schedule 1 drugs illegal to sell or possess.

Some interviewers and critics have blamed Huffman for turning an entire generation onto "monster weed."

"It's become a royal pain in the rear end," Huffman said the other day, reflecting on the unwelcome attention his research has received. "I had a TV station in Moscow accuse me of trying to poison America's youth."

In that interview, live on Russian radio, he said, his responses seemed slow because of a satellite delay — so slow that the questioner accused him of smoking his own creations.

In a separate conversation, a BBC interviewer "basically asked me when I stopped beating my wife," he said. "They accused me of creating all these horrible drugs."

But Huffman laughs as he describes emails assuming he has created a super form of medical marijuana or has profited by designing lucrative marijuana substitutes. "We were not. It was all just basic science," he said. To counter misinformation, he and Clemson have devised a boilerplate statement describing his research and warning against consuming synthetic marijuana.

That hasn't stopped alert entrepreneurs from using Huffman's formulas, published in scientific journals. Their products, often sold as "herbal incense" and smoked like traditional marijuana, can produce seizures, hallucinations, tremors, paranoia, convulsions, high blood pressure and rapid heart rate, say emergency room doctors.

Poison control centers have received 4,500 calls over the last two years from people using fake marijuana, according to the American Assn. of Poison Control Centers.

There also has been "a significant jump" in the last couple of years in emergency room admissions, said DEA spokesman Lawrence Payne. "Unfortunately, there are many retailers out there who care nothing about the products they are selling and what they do to kids," he said.

No studies have been completed on fake marijuana's effects on human health or behavior, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. But Huffman warns that the compounds can cause high blood pressure, elevated heart rate and "serious and unpredictable psychological effects."

Of the five cannabinoid compounds declared temporarily illegal by the DEA, the most widely used are three invented by Huffman and bearing his initials: JWH-018, JWH-073 and JWH-200.

"We didn't think anything of these compounds. We wrote papers about them and that was it — or so we thought," he said.

His research colleagues tease him, asking him what mad compounds he's cooked up lately, or suggesting he open a chain of head shops. A little old lady at his church told him, "Oh, it's so awful what they've done with your stuff!"

On a recent trip to Myrtle Beach, S.C., Huffman got a kick out of a sign in front of a head shop that read: "K-2 — Two For The Price of One."

And when he gave a talk recently to a group called the Carolina Cannabinoid Cooperative, Huffman titled it, "JWH-018 — A Good Compound Gone Bad."

From 1984 until early this year, Huffman and his team at Clemson created 460 synthetic cannabinoid compounds for tests on lab animals. Under a $2-million federal drug grant, they studied the interaction between drugs and brain receptors.

"These receptors don't exist so that people can smoke marijuana and get high," Huffman said. "They play a role in regulating appetite, nausea, mood, pain and inflammation."

Synthetic cannabinoids are structurally different from THC, the active ingredient in marijuana. But they have the same biological effects on the human body, which is why they are useful in research.

In tests on lab animals, some have shown promise in developing treatments for pain and inflammation and some skin cancers, Huffman said. But because of their powerful effects on brain receptors, it's extremely risky to ingest them.

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