The drug, also sold under the name Happy Shaman Herbs, Smoke, Skunk and Zohai, among others, was developed for study purposes in the mid-'90s in the lab of John Huffman, a Clemson University chemist, who was conducting National Institute on Drug Abuse-supported research on cannabinoids.
The chemical makeup of the drug, which he called JWH-018 and JWH-073, was similar to tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the active ingredient in marijuana, only considerably more potent.
While THC is a cannabinoid, it's one of many, Huffman said. There are many other substances that interact with the cannabinoid receptors in the brain and other organs, Huffman said.
"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," Huffman said. "Synthetic cannabinoids can help us understand these interactions and ultimately this knowledge may contribute to the development of new therapies.
Huffman and his colleagues described JWH-018 and JWH-073 in scientific literature. "Evidently some people have figured out how to make them," Huffman said.
Huffman warned that the drugs were only meant to be used in the lab and were not designed for use in people, Huffman said. "These compounds were not meant for human consumption," Huffman said. "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."
And while the makers of K2 seem to have latched on to JWH-018, many other labs have developed their own synthetic cannabinoids that may also find their way into synthetic marijuana products, Scalzo said.
The K2 craze caught on several years ago Europe, prompting several countries to make synthetic cannabis products illegal.
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