Professor's 'fake weed' now a real pain

Substance intended for pharmaceutical industry finds its way to the streets

nophillips@thestate.comNovember 22, 2009 

Clemson University chemistry professor John Huffman was amused the first time someone called to talk about people smoking one of his lab projects to get high.

It's not so funny anymore.

As the use of K2, Spice and other drugs that are considered "fake weed" spreads across the country, Huffman is fielding more calls from police agencies, media and even from people who want instructions on how to make it.

"Quite frankly, it's become sort of a pain," he said.

While local law enforcement said they have not received reports of use in the Midlands, fake marijuana products are available in Columbia.

Legal in South Carolina, they are sold as incense under the names K2 and Spice.

Huffman, who has taught at Clemson since 1960, said he never intended for anyone to smoke his research projects.

Huffman and his students create compounds - known as synthetic cannabinoids - that mimic the effects of marijuana. The creations, he said, are used by other scientists in the pharmaceutical research industry.

However, some of Huffman's lab products have evolved into recreational drugs that became popular in Europe several years ago. Now, those substance are spreading across the United States, including in Columbia.

At Disorderly Conduct, a Five Points novelty shop, at least four varieties of incense similar to Spice are sold for $20 a gram. K2 costs about $60 for 4 grams. A clerk who answered the store phone Thursday refused to answer questions about the products and said the owner was not available.

The products come in small plastic bags and look like a blend of leafy green spices from your kitchen cabinet.

Spice and K2 are new to the area.

"We tend to be behind the larger cities," said Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott. "If it continues to be popular in other places, we'll eventually see it."

Brick Lewis, a Columbia Police Department spokesman, said city officers have not come across the substances.

Attempts to reach the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency in Columbia were unsuccessful.

As K2 and Spice have gained popularity, Huffman has had plenty of conversations with narcotics agents around the globe, including Japanese police and the German air force.

Recently, Huffman chatted with someone in the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency who was trying to replicate fake marijuana in one of the agency's labs.

"It was a very scientific discussion," Huffman said.

Fake marijuana is illegal in several countries in Europe and Asia. It's not against U.S. law, but some states are moving to outlaw it.

Huffman started developing the fake cannabinoids about 20 years ago. People in the pharmaceutical industry wanted to learn more about two proteins in the human body that react with THC, the potent, active ingredient in marijuana. Huffman decided to create substances that mimic THC to sell to the pharmaceutical industry.

Huffman said he sells most of his compounds to researchers at Virginia Commonwealth University.

Each of Huffman's creations is named by using his initials and a serial number. He and his students have made more than 450 varieties.

But the one getting the most attention is JWH-018, which was made by a summer research intern in the mid-1990s. Huffman would not name the student but said she is a medical doctor now.

In 2005, Huffman wrote a long article for a scientific journal that spelled out the chemical formula for JWH-018.

That's when its use went beyond the research laboratory.

"These people are not naive," he said. "They thought, 'Ah-ha! Let's try this stuff and smoke it.' They got real high for a real long time. It's pretty simple to make if you have an organic chemistry lab."

People spread the synthetic cannabinoid on common herbs and smoke it, Huffman said.

While Huffman gets calls about JWH-018, he isn't sure which fake marijuana products on the market actually use that specific ingredient.

That doesn't stop people from sending Huffman e-mails to ask for help in making his compounds.

He deletes those messages. He tells people they shouldn't smoke the "fake marijuana."

"Do not use this stuff," he said. "We don't know how toxic it is."

Reach Phillips at (803) 771-8307.

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