Pubdate: Sat, 08 Oct 2011
Source: Seattle Times (WA)
Copyright: 2011 The Seattle Times Company
Author: David Zucchino, Los Angeles Times


John Huffman, the Organic Chemist WHO Put Together Cannabinoids to 
Study Brain Receptors, Is Taking Heat As Compounds Find Their Way into 
Dangerous "Herbal" Concoctions.
 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 on to "monster weed."

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

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."

"Just basic science"

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 actual 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 so-called fake marijuana, according to the
American Association 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.

460 compounds

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.

"These things are dangerous - anybody who uses them is playing Russian
roulette," Huffman said. "They have profound psychological effects. We
never intended them for human consumption."

But after Huffman's team published its work, opportunists who saw a
ready market in stoners seeking stronger highs grabbed the formulas.
They mixed the pale, amber, gummy compounds with benign herbs to
resemble marijuana.

Huffman said he first got calls in early 2009 about head shops selling
products based on his formulas.

Although he was irritated that people were smoking his creations to
get high, he was not entirely surprised.

The effects of JWH-018 can be 10 times stronger than those of THC, the
active compound in marijuana. Some of his more complex compounds are
even more potent, he said, and carry an even higher risk of
hallucinations and psychosis.

Huffman said other cannabinoids among the 460 are very difficult to
make, even for scientists. But the three of his compounds outlawed by
the DEA - especially JWH-018 - are easily produced.

Most of the chemicals are imported from overseas manufacturers -
especially in China - but underground labs in the U.S. increasingly
are producing and synthesizing them, said Payne, the DEA spokesman.

The agency is investigating several large-scale importers and
distributors, said agency spokeswoman Barbara Carreno.

But the DEA doesn't have the resources to study all 460 of Huffman's
compounds, plus those created by others, Carreno said. That means any
products containing cannabinoids other than the five listed by the DEA
technically remain legal.

If the Department of Health and Human Services recommends outlawing
the five listed cannabinoids, they would remain illegal for six
months. The DEA would then begin public notices and other bureaucratic
procedures to permanently outlaw them. Steps to make other
cannabinoids illegal could follow.

Huffman supports banning them. But he also favors legalizing and
taxing marijuana.

"You can't overdose on marijuana, but you might on these compounds,"
he said. "These things are dangerous, and marijuana isn't, really."

Huffman recently retired from Clemson, but keeps an office at the
university. He mainly spends his days in the idyllic hamlet of Sylva.

He still gets phone calls "from little papers in East Podunk, Ark.,"
he said, asking about the potent fake pot he supposedly invented.
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