In 1979, three researchers at Pfizer, the pharmaceutical giant, came up with a synthetic cannabinoid—a drug that, in some ways, acts similarly to the active ingredient in marijuana. What the company did with this research, it won’t say. But decades later, a designer drug marketed as “fake pot” began to emerge—first in Europe, later in America—that went on to be blamed for contributing to tens of thousands of trips to the emergency room. One of the five active substances in that “fake pot”—also known as “Spice” or “K2”—was the synthetic cannabinoid first discovered at Pfizer; pharmaceutical giant and money maker.
There’s no evidence that Pfizer had anything to do with the introduction or spread of Spice.
But the unearthing of Pfizer’s little-known cannabinoid research does highlight the sometimes-uncomfortable relationship between Big Pharma and the illicit drug trade. And it also upends the popular origin myth of Spice, which usually begins with Clemson University Professor John W. Huffman.
The Los Angeles Times was one of the first to connect the dots between the Harvard graduate and the lethal designer drug marketed as “fake pot,” Spice. In a 2011 article titledScientists’ Research Produces a Dangerous High, the paper essentially declared him the “reluctant creator of synthetic pot.”
Which is only sort of true.
In the middle of a 1984 study to find treatments for HIV/AIDS, multiple sclerosis, and chemotherapy, Huffman did develop an extremely potent synthetic cannabinoid with a similar high to cannabis, which he named JWH-018 (after himself). In 2008, German scientists announced that it was one of five active substances in Spice, at that point a dangerous new designer drug sweeping Europe.
So when Spice began to emerge in the United States a few years later, the question on everyone’s mind was the same–Who is responsible for this? All roads led to Huffman. “It bothers me that people are so stupid as to use this stuff,” Huffman told WebMD in 2010. In an interview with ABC News one year later, Huffman’s frustration was palpable. “They’re playing Russian roulette,” he said of the people using Spice recreationally. “I mean, it’s just like taking a pistol with one bullet in it and spinning the chamber and holding it to your head and pulling the trigger.”
But there is another part of this story. Let’s go back. Less than 3 months after the same German scientists found Hoffman’s synthetic chemical, they stumbled upon another culprit: a synthetic cannabinoid called CP 47, 497.
This one they found it was created almost a decade before Hoffman’s and was created by Pfizer.
Made up of dried plants ranging from parsley to bay leaves, Spice’s synthetic cannabinoids are sprayed on top of the herbs and generate a high. The DEA has discovered more than 400 varieties of synthetic cannabinoids, making Spice almost impossible to regulate.
The synthetic cannabinoids sprayed on Spice can lead to severe psychosis, brain damage, strokes, or even death. Binding to the CB1 and CB2 receptor cells, this designer drug produces a similar high to THC but while it is similar it can be anywhere from 5 to 10 times as potent. The classification as an artificial form of marijuana–is inaccurate–very inaccurate. This drug, was never meant for human consumption.
And while the novelty of its recreational use means statistics on its negative effects are scant, high-profile news stories expose the grim reality of consuming a haphazard dose of unknown chemicals. In a story that’s alarmingly representative of America’s newest drug problem, over 100 people showed signs of overdosing from K2 in Dallas this April. The rash of overdoses, which occurred over a five-day period, forced ER doctors to treat more than 40 people in less-than 48 hours.
So let’s rewind again. Back to Pfizer. Pfizer’s scientists published their research on CP 47,497 which they tested on mice, rats, and male beagle dogs. So sad. The authors describe a simplified structure closely related to THC. “CP-47,497 exerts analgesic, motor depressant, anticonvulsant and hypothermic effects,” write the three doctors on the study—Lawrence S. Melvin, Jr., George Milne, and Albert Weissman (now deceased). In other words, the synthetic acts a whole lot like old-school weed. “[It] does not resemble standard antipsychotic, antidepressant, anti anxiety or hypnotic drugs in simple drug interaction tests.”
How this research made its way into a deadly drug three decades later is unknown.
The DEA is focusing on moving forward to try to curb the spead of Spice—not back at its origins. On May 7, 45 DEA agents armed with 200 search warrants launched a massive nationwide program to eradicate synthetic designer drugs like spice (called “Project Synergy.”) In a matter of hours, the agents had confiscated hundreds of thousands of packets of synthetic drugs and over $20 million in cash. “The chemical aspect of Spice is unique and new,” Rusty Payne, spokesperson for the DEA tells me. “We have to not only establish that someone is trafficking something but we have to go undercover and get it so we can test it. Sometimes it’s a game of whack-a-mole.”