In 1979, three researchers at Pfizer, the pharmaceutical giant, came up with a synthetic cannabinoid—a drug that, in some ways, acts similarily 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.
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 titled Scientists’ Research Produces a Dangerous High, the paper essentially declared him the “reluctant creator of synthetic pot.”
Which is only sort of true.
In the midst 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 eclipsed by the infamy of this sole drug researcher, and missing in the hundreds of news articles about it since, was an inconvenient fact: his synthetic cannabinoid wasn’t the only one found in Spice—and it wasn’t the first one discovered, either. Those distinctions belong to the largest research-based pharmaceutical company in the world: Pfizer.
The missing part of the story—the prequel, if you will—begins like this.
Less than three months after those German scientists—they were from the University Hospital Freiburg—landed on Hoffman’s synthetic in November 2008, the same forensic toxicologists stumbled upon another culprit: an analogue of a synthetic cannabinoid called CP 47,497.
“The chemical aspect of Spice is unique and new… 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.”
This one, they learned, was created almost a decade earlier—in 1979, by Pfizer.
Made up of dried plants ranging from bay leaves to parsley, it’s Spice’s synthetic cannabinoids sprayed on top of the herbs that generate a high. As of this week, the DEA has discovered more than 400+ varieties of synthetic cannabinoids, making it nearly impossible to regulate. Buying “fake pot,” then, is about as easy as picking up a coffee at the corner deli. Most often smoked, it can also be purchased in powder form (though rarely is). Sold mostly at gas stations and smoke shops, it cons users into thinking its legal—and, inevitably then, safe.
But it’s far from it. 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, the psychoactive designer drug invokes a similar high to that of naturally occurring cannabinoids (THC, the mind-altering compound found in marijuana). But while the psychoactive effects are similar, Spice can be anywhere from five to 10 times more potent. Its classification as an artificial form of marijuana is recklessly inaccurate, masking the identity of a synthetic drug that 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.
The problem isn’t localized to Texas—or even just to civilians. A new study by the University of Washington found that U.S. soldiers now prefer synthetic marijuana over natural weed 2:1.
In 2011 alone, there were nearly 39,000 trips to the emergency room for K2. The American Association of Poison Control Centers Poison centers received over 5,000 Spice-related calls in 2012, a number that had neared 7,000 in 2011.
The problem with Spice is the endless possibilities that come with synthetic cannabinoids, making it a constantly changing compound. Any attempts to ban it by the Drug Enforcement Agency are thwarted when the old synthetic is simply switched with a new one. “Spice is one of those drugs that if we do not get ahead of, and the American public doesn’t recognize the dangers it could cause to its youth, it could have devastating effects much like heroin, much like meth,” Eduardo Chavez, chief DEA agent told CBS news.
Back in 1982, Pfizer’s scientists published their research on CP 47,497, which they tested on mice, rates, and male beagle dogs. The authors describe a simplified structure closely related to THC (tetrahydrocannabinol, the mind-altering ingredient in marijuana). “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, antianxiety or hypnotic drugs in simple drug interaction tests.”
How this research made its way into a deadly drug three decades later is unknown. Media Relations Director at Pfizer, Dean Mastrojohn turned down multiple requests from The Daily Beast for comment, citing difficulties with “looking back several decades.”
Huffman understands the frustration of doing so more than most. “I’m sorry, but I’ve given a great many interviews on this topic,” is the opener in his reply to me, which amounts to something like leave me alone. After six years of fielding questions and defending his integrity, he’s sick of defending himself.
If the role of Pfizer had been recognized, maybe he wouldn’t have had to do so alone.
The company may have received treatment much the same—if not worse—had their role been made public. That’s not necessarily to say that they are responsible for the nearly 40,000 people who landed in an emergency room for Spice in 2011 alone. Hardly. The onus of this designer drug should rest on the people making millions off of it today—neither of whom are Pfizer or Hoffman.
But drug research often walks a fine line between medicine and recreation—making the history between drug abuse and big pharma closer than the latter would like to admit. Pfizer’s connection to K2 would by no means be the first major drug to have roots in commercial enterprises. “Heroin” is considered by many to be a Bayer trademark; LSD was invented at Sandoz; Merck developed MDMA but never used it in humans.
But if Pfizer’s role in this latest designer drug mess is known, it’s only by a handful of people. The DEA is surprised to hear of their involvement, and says they cannot confirm it.
Glenn Duncan, executive director of New Jersey’s Hunterdon Drug Awareness Program is one of the few I find who’s aware of it. “My understanding is Pfizer played a small role in this…they were one of the first to work with this class of compounds,” he tells The Daily Beast in an email. In other words, Pfizer’s men were three of the first to experiment with cannabinoids in 1979—further proven by the fact that actual receptors for those cannabinoids weren’t discovered in the brain until the 1980s.
The batches of Spice, K2 on the open, legal market today most definitely do not contain Pfizer’s synthetic cannabinoid, nor do they contain Huffman’s. In March 2011, the U.S. Department of Justice placed the five most widely abused synthetic cannabinoids—including Huffman and Pfizer’s—on its Schedule 1 List of banned substances.
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.”
Editor's Note: An earlier version of this article mistakenly referred to thousands of overdoses as deaths. Overdoses from Spice are not necessarily fatal.