© 2021 WFAE
90.7 Charlotte 93.7 Southern Pines 90.3 Hickory 106.1 Laurinburg
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
Charlotte Area

The Unlikely Clemson Chemist Behind Synthetic Marijuana

John Huffman with his model trains.

Correction This story includes a correction in the typical price of K2/Spice. There is a new phenomenon being sold at head shops, smoke shops, gas stations and online. It's called Spice - or K2. It looks like dried oregano and people who smoke it swear it's as good as marijuana. More than a few have also ended up in the hospital with sky-high heart rates and blood pressure. Lots of cities and states have banned it - or are trying. The Rock Hill City Council debated it last night. JWH-018 is the drug's scientific name in honor of its unlikely inventor. JWH stands for John William Huffman. He's 78 and he lives with his wife and two small dogs in a modest house high in the North Carolina mountains overlooking the town of Sylva. He has bushy eyebrows, a slight build and he's about as far from a pot-smoking hippie as you can get. Huffman came of age in the 1950's, before marijuana was the thing to do. By the 1960's, he was a young father and professor at Clemson University. His work would later make him a hero of recreational drug users craving a legal high. But Huffman's own recreational pursuits are decidedly less rebellious. He builds model trains. "My father decided when I was about 7 that we should do model railroading so I would get some manual dexterity," says Huffman with a chuckle. "He created a monster." Huffman was supposed to be a doctor like his father. But in one of his few acts of rebellion, he chose chemistry. In the early '90s, Huffman turned his attention to the active compound in marijuana - called THC. "THC is actually a rather mediocre cannabinoid," says Huffman. When people smoke marijuana, the THC turns on something called a "cannabinoid receptor" in the body. If Huffman could create a compound that flipped that switch even better than THC, other researchers could use it as a tool to unlock the secrets of the cannabinoid receptor. Scientists think it affects things like pain and appetite and may be useful in treating or curing diseases. The National Institutes of Health spent $98 million on cannabinoid research during just the last three years. That's where Huffman got the funding that led JWH-018. It's "actually quite easy to make for an experienced chemist," says Huffman. It's also five times more potent than THC. Huffman first made it in 1995, but it would be 10 years before he published the formula in the journal of Bioorganic and Medicinal Chemistry. (He did that so other researchers could use it in their own studies.) But underground chemists caught on fast and around 2008, Huffman started seeing JWH-018 pop up in newspaper articles as the latest drug fad. "I actually thought it was sort of humorous, and I thought 'Gee it took these people a long time to put one and two together,'" says Huffman. But he doesn't think it's funny anymore. "No, because it turned out to be dangerous," says Huffman. As for any feelings of responsibility that he made the drug, Huffman says "you can't be responsible for what idiots are going to do." And those "idiots" now email Huffman wanting to know how to make JWH-018. The messages are usually poorly written and ask Huffman for help in making it. "I just hit the delete button," says Huffman. However, he's sometimes tempted to tell them to just smoke the real thing. Huffman's synthetic marijuana has prompted hundreds of calls to poison control and landed people in the hospital with racing hearts and dangerously high blood pressure. It turns out smoking something five times more potent than pot isn't necessarily five times better. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration recently announced a plan to make JWH-018 illegal, but Huffman says that won't work. He made more than 400 variations of the compound. Ban #18 and people will just use another one. "I don't have an answer to the problem," says Huffman. "I made it, but if I hadn't done it, somebody else would have." The only reason Huffman doesn't tell his fans to go ahead and smoke marijuana instead, is because it's illegal. Huffman does not break the law. He says he's never even gotten a speeding ticket. The one time he tangled with the police, he was 15. He and a buddy started a fire in the street with stuff from his chemistry set. "We got a free ride to the police station, and it scared the daylights out of both of us that they would notify our parents," says Huffman. He must have smoked pot, though, right? All those years trying to make the best cannabinoid possible . . . he had to have been curious. We're two hours into our conversation before he finally comes clean. "Well once," admits Huffman, chuckling. It was at a cannabinoid research meeting around 1996. He was drinking a beer when some fellow attendees from Amsterdam approached him. They asked if Huffman had ever smoked pot. He replied, "No." They asked if he'd like to. "I said, 'Okay,'" recalls Huffman. "We went up to their room. They had some really good Dutch hash they'd brought into the country on the airplane in a matchbox. They made a bong from a toilet paper roll - these guys were crazy!" "It didn't do a thing for me, really," says Huffman. The effect was like drinking two and a half martinis. "I'll stick to the martinis - they're legal." But he never had second thoughts about all the research he'd done, and he still hopes someday it might lead other researchers to a medical breakthrough. Huffman, however, is done. In December, he closed his lab at Clemson and let his last grant expire. He never patented a single one of his compounds - including the one he'll likely be remembered for most. Which means that the people spraying JWH-018 on herbs and selling it at $20 an ounce $10 a gram are making more money off Huffman's work than he probably ever will.