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Its street names, appearing first in Europe around 2004 and in subsequent years on the streets of the United States, evoke cosmic experiences in far-off places: “K2” references the world’s second-highest mountain without any hint of the tranquility in the name of its taller neighbor, Everest; “Spice” alludes to the sci-fi novel Dune with its compelling descriptions of alien worlds. Yet the name of its original active ingredient – “JWH-018” – could not be more boring, nor its namesake more down to earth.
John W. Huffman, a professor of chemistry at Clemson University, looks like the last person anyone would ever suspect of unleashing a drug menace on the world. Demure, bearded and dressed in tenure casual for his faculty photo, Dr. Huffman resembles Mr. Rogers more than “El Chapo” Guzman; yet the products of this studious professor’s laboratory have allegedly wrought at least one death and multiple cases of temporary psychosis, dissociation and dependence.
To understand what “Spice” is and how it came to enjoy its present level of popularity, it is necessary to first understand the way the US government regulates both legal and illegal drugs. The Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), the police arm of federal drug policy, maintains a list of five “schedules” under the Controlled Substances Act of 1970 (CSA) and enforces the rules governing each schedule; the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) sets the rules of the approval process by which drugs move in and out of the schedules.
In addition, NIDA, the National Institute on Drug Abuse, maintains a legal monopoly on all herbal cannabis produced or distributed in the US and therefore has unfettered authority to determine who may legally cultivate, distribute or study the drug; cannabis is the only drug in the US subject to this additional regulation.
Of the five schedules created under the CSA, the only one which could reasonably be called “illegal” is Schedule I. Even cocaine may be legally administered by a licensed doctor in a hospital setting; the same drug snorted recreationally in every major US city is commonly applied as a topical anesthetic in eye surgery. Thus, because the DEA admits cocaine has a high potential for abuse but also limited legitimate medical applications, it has placed the drug probably where it should: in the heavily-regulated-but-legal Schedule II. It has made similar determinations for methamphetamines (Schedule II) and Ketamine (Schedule III).
Not so for herbal cannabis (Schedule I). Because the placement of cannabis in the most restrictive schedule (meaning it has a “high potential for abuse” and “no accepted medical applications”) is the only legal justification for continued raids and zero-tolerance enforcement policies, every law enforcement agency, drug manufacturer and shareholder in for-profit prison companies who benefits from its continued legal status have a strong incentive to oppose any research which may prove medical marijuana is anything but an elaborate hoax.
The DEA has done its part, promulgating a rigorous standard of proof for the efficacy of cannabis which it doesn’t apply to any other drug – saying, in essence, that it will not reschedule cannabis unless clinical trials adhering to rigorous FDA standards prove the flowers have medical benefits.
Yet NIDA, the gatekeepers of the only legal supply of pot in the entire country, repeatedly deny requests to study the effects of their pot on, say, combat veterans with PTSD, on the basis their charter only allows them to support research into the supposed harms of smoking cannabis and not its benefits. So, any researcher who wants to follow up on anecdotal claims of marijuana’s medical benefits is forced by federal law to get a little creative.
That’s where Huffman came in. In the late nineties, the innocuous professor became interested in anecdotal claims coming out of California that cannabis helped sufferers of AIDS, cancer, and many other terrible diseases. The consummate scientist, Dr. Huffman naturally wanted to see the results of experiments to test the claims; but realizing federal policy made that practically impossible, the expert chemist spotted a loophole: because federal law only banned the active chemicals found naturally in cannabis resin (called “exogenous cannabinoids”), he could help doctors study the effects of cannabis by inventing new cannabinoids not found in nature.
The professor went to work, and the results are impressive by any measure. Huffman’s team at Clemson have synthesized over 450 cannabinoids and supplied them to researchers worldwide; a PubMed.gov search lists over 250 laboratory studies which employed at least one cannabinoid bearing his initials “JWH.” Out of such a vast trove of research chemicals can be found some true gems, such as JWH-133, a nonpsychoactive synthetic which activates the CB2 receptor and has been shown to have anti-carcinogenic properties in test tubes and mice. But such a trove may also contain nightmare drugs – and JWH-018 appears to fit the bill.
Take an untitrated pill of pure delta-9 THC (AKA Marinol, Schedule III), and see what happens. The most likely result is a staggering, overpowering high – highly disorienting and quite possibly fraught with paranoia. That is because, unlike herbal cannabis, Marinol contains no CBD or any other cannabinoids to moderate the action of THC. Even the superheated sublimation of hash oil – so-called “dabbing” – delivers a greatly-reduced but still moderating dose of ancillary exogenous cannabinoids. Marinol provides no chemical buffer at all – nothing to cushion the intoxication.
JWH-018 is even stronger. THC is known as a “partial agonist” of both CB1 and CB2 receptors – meaning that it activates both known sides of the endocannabinoid system, but not to its fullest potential (this may be one reason why no one has ever fatally overdosed from cannabis). JWH-018 is a full agonist of both receptors, which means it switches every known part of the body’s cannabis-reactive chemistry to full blast upon contact. When taken by a user with little or no tolerance to cannabis, the effects of JWH-018 can be extreme. While the question of its toxicity is by no means settled, at least one coroner’s report has attributed the cause of death to fatal overdose of JWH-018.
Today, JWH-018 is effectively banned, listed in Schedule I next to the herbal drug which caused the fuss in the first place. The “Spice” industry has adapted. After all, there are 450 other synthetics to choose from.