A chemical-based cannabis derived for research purposes out of a South Carolina laboratory in 1997 has created legal and social controversies in 2012.
Dr. Richard Huffman created the mixture at Clemson University and retired years ago, but some companies copied his synthetic marijuana compound and sprayed it onto potpourri leaves, creating the synthetic marijuana that is now leading to drug abuse problems all over the country.
The Times-News contacted Huffman, who now lives in North Carolina, and interviewed him via e-mail to talk about his work on cannabis research.
Huffman’s research was authorized by the university and paid for by a national clearinghouse for drug abuse research.
Receptors in the brain and how they receive and use the cannabinoid THC — the active ingredient in marijuana — was the main focus of Huffman’s work, which has been recognized by the National Institute for Drug Abuse. The NIDA funded the study from 1984 up to Huffman’s retirement from Clemson in 2010.
The compounds, JWH-018 and JWH-073, have been copied by select designer drug manufacturers and marketed as home incense and marked with “not for human consumption” labels.
Cases by the thousands across the United States and by the dozens in the Tri-Cities have occurred where users have ignored the warnings and rolled the mixture into cigarettes for smoking, causing documented cases of hysteria, hallucination, heart attack and other serious medical side effects.
Just last week, another designer drug used in bath salts sent 12 people to Holston Valley Medical Center for emergency treatment, said Wellmont spokesman Jim Wozniak.
“These compounds are among many that have been created, by my group and others, in the course of research aimed at understanding the relationship between the chemical structure and the biological activity of substances known as cannabinoids,” Huffman told the Times-News.
“Cannabinoids include THC — the active ingredient in cannabis plants — but also other substances that interact with the cannabinoid receptors in the brain and other organs. These receptors don’t exist so that people can smoke marijuana and get high; they play a role in regulating appetite, nausea, mood, pain and inflammation.
“They may be involved in the development of conditions such as osteoporosis, liver disease and some kinds of cancer. Synthetic cannabinoids can help us understand these interactions, and ultimately this knowledge may contribute to the development of new therapies.”
As of March 2011, the Drug Enforcement Administration had entered a final order to place JMH-018 and similar cannabinoids on a temporary list of banned controlled substances.
This listing would lead to the chemicals becoming illegal to possess and use, leaving the government open to charging companies for using and distributing any product that may contain them.
Kingsport currently has laws on the books that prohibit the sale and use of synthetic drug products like K2, Spice and brands of bath salts. But individuals in the Model City continue to be able to obtain the products, including 18-year-old Shannon Phillips, who was just released from medical care after overdosing on a mixture of bath salts and K2.
A recent media report estimates Huffman and his staff created 460 different cannabinoids, some of which landed in the hands of chemists who decided to profit from his research.
“JWH-018 and JWH-073, and other similar compounds developed in this field of research, have been discussed in scientific publications. Evidently some people have figured out how to make them and are putting them in products marketed as incense,” Huffman said.
Given the controversy, Huffman said he has been besieged with interview requests and has decided to honor a few of those, including a Moscow television station that accused him of “poisoning America’s youth,” while an interviewer with the BBC sarcastically asked him when he “stopped beating his wife.”
“I want to stress that these compounds were not meant for human consumption. Their effects in humans have not been studied, and they could very well have toxic effects. They absolutely should not be used as recreational drugs. I would emphasize the risk people are taking when they smoke these products. We simply don’t know what the health effects might be,” said Huffman.