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Marijuana is a controlled substance, he points out. "If you forget California and just go according to federal law, it's a crime to produce, sell or use [marijuana]. On the other hand, the National Institute on Drug Abuse, which funds our work, can supply researchers with marijuana cigarettes. And they do. So you probably want to make it a controlled substance, but simply criminalizing it is not a good idea."
A professor of organic chemistry, Huffman says he does not have the background to judge how well the JWH compounds would work for medicinal purposes. He has provided JWH compounds to a scientist from the University of Kentucky, who is working on a patch that would apply doses for patients with nausea who are unable to swallow pills or don't have access to medicinal marijuana. "It works, as far as I know, but maybe not as well as a couple of other things she [the Kentucky researcher] has looked at."
And Huffman knows firsthand about claims that K2 can help with pain management. "My ex-wife has multiple sclerosis. There's been a great deal of research in Europe and Canada on cannabinoids to treat MS, and apparently it's effective in not curing the disease but relieving some of the symptoms," he says.
Despite that research, Lithuania, Latvia, Germany, Russia, Sweden, Estonia and the UK have criminalized JWH-018 in the past year.
"Outside of a week ago, I didn't even know these substances existed," says Casey Johnson, 58, who runs Johnson County Clinical Trials, an independent company that specializes in working with pharmaceutical companies on drug research. His company helps with the human-trial stage of vaccine studies. Following the outcry over K2, he started to examine the limited research. A cursory look into the history of cannabinoids shows that they have potential to help treat neurodegenerative diseases, Johnson says.
The human brain has two cannabinoid receptors, CB1 and CB2. Researchers believe that if a cannabinoid bonds with CB1, it produces a euphoric sensation. CB2, meanwhile, is the receptor responsible for marijuana's therapeutic effects: an anti-inflammatory of the central nervous system; a treatment for depression; an appetite stimulant for HIV and chemotherapy patients and those with other illnesses whose symptoms include nausea and vomiting. Many synthetic cannabinoids bond only to one or the other of those receptors, but the ones that Kansas wants to ban have the ability to bond with both. Neurodegenerative diseases that could theoretically be treated with synthetic cannabinoids include Alzheimer's disease, ALS, Parkinson's disease and Huntington's disease.
Johnson says there have been no real tests on the synthetic cannabinoids. "Research is a monstrous wheel with lots of cogs on it, and to truly evaluate this is a multiple-million-dollar project," he says. "It strikes me as inappropriate and shortsighted to make this illegal. But on the other hand, it seems shortsighted to say it should be smoked without knowing the potential side effects."
Over the last six years, Kansas has spent hundreds of millions of dollars in an effort to convince the world that the state values exactly this kind of research. In 2004, the Kansas Economic Growth Act announced a $581 million initiative to start the Kansas Bioscience Authority, whose mission is to "build world-class research capacity, foster the formation and growth of bioscience startups, support expansion of the state's bioscience clusters, and facilitate industrial expansion and attraction."
The KBA's goal is to raise bioscience investment in Kansas to more than $5 billion; to date, it has reportedly created more than 1,000 jobs, $92 million in capital investments and $37 million in research funding.