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How The Wave Of Synthetic Cannabinoids Got Started


Over the past 10 years, a group of drugs called synthetic cannabinoids, also known as Spice, K2 or synthetic marijuana, have been responsible for mass overdoses and tens of thousands of emergency room visits around the country. Alexi Horowitz-Ghazi of our Planet Money podcast looked into where this wave in synthetic drugs began.

ALEXI HOROWITZ-GHAZI, BYLINE: The story of the modern synthetic drug revolution begins in a scientific lab with a well-intentioned professor.

JOHN W HUFFMAN: Let me explain how we got into the synthetic cannabinoid business.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: John W. Huffman is a retired organic chemistry professor from Clemson University. And his role in the multibillion-dollar synthetic drug market began in the early 1990s. A few years earlier, biochemists had discovered a part of the body called the cannabinoid receptor. In addition to getting pot smokers high, this receptor seemed to be involved with all sorts of important things - sleep, appetite, pain, which meant a whole new horizon of potential medicines. But first scientists had to figure out how the receptor worked.

HUFFMAN: And that sounded like a fun puzzle to attack.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: John Huffman's job was to synthesize brand new chemical compounds to trigger the receptor. And those would be tested on rodent brains to measure their effects. Huffman and his colleagues eventually created more than 300 new compounds. They published their scientific findings and formulas, and for over a decade, that was that. Then around the end of 2008, John Huffman received an unexpected message from a blogger in Germany.

HUFFMAN: They had discovered that one of our compounds had been found in a drug called Spice.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Spice was the brand name for a new kind of product being sold as herbal incense and labelled as not for human consumption. But humans were, in fact, consuming the stuff, getting high and exhibiting some troubling symptoms. And when authorities analyzed this Spice, they found JWH-018.

HUFFMAN: It was the 18th compound that we synthesized, and it was pretty potent - never thought anything of it.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Some enterprising chemist appeared to have poached Huffman's recipe straight from his research and mass produced it in China for distribution around the world. In the years since Huffman's compound was discovered in Spice, over 500 new synthetic drugs have been identified as clandestine chemists have continued to poach formulas from scientific and patent literature and tweaked their recipes to stay out of drug scheduling.

Sam Bannister is a medicinal chemist with a group called the Psychoactive Surveillance Consortium and Analysis Network. Bannister says these products have become so profitable that prohibition alone won't stem the flow of new synthetic drugs.

SAM BANNISTER: I think it's just truly ruthless profiteering, and I think that's really what drives it. There's no concern for the people who are actually using these drugs.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: So Bannister and his colleagues have taken a kind of radical approach to the problem.

BANNISTER: We're building a library of the drugs that will probably emerge on the streets in the next few years.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: So you're, like, searching for the street drugs of the future.

BANNISTER: Yeah, yeah, I think that's probably exactly it.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: So when a new potent strain hits the streets, the library can help authorities treat victims and prosecute sellers. It's been over two decades since John W. Huffman created JWH-018, but he says he still gets the occasional email from someone affected by these drugs blaming him for his invention.

HUFFMAN: You've ruined my life. You've ruined my kid's life - that kind of thing. And I feel sorry for them, but it isn't my fault.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Scientists publish their findings, Huffman says. How could he have known his work might help jumpstart a synthetic drugs revolution? Alexi Horowitz-Ghazi, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Alexi Horowitz-Ghazi
Alexi Horowitz-Ghazi reports and produces for Planet Money, telling stories that creatively explore and explain the workings of the global economy. He's a sucker for a good supply chain mystery — from toilet paper to foster puppies to specialty pastas. He's drawn to tales of unintended consequences, like the time a well-intentioned chemistry professor unwittingly helped unleash a global market for synthetic drugs, or what happened when the U.S. Patent Office started granting patents on human genes. And he's always on the lookout for economic principles at work in unexpected places, like the tactics comedians use to protect their intellectual property (a.k.a. jokes).