#882: Synthetic Reefer Madness How a professor invented a formula for synthesizing cannabinoids and unintentionally helped launch a drug revolution.
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#882: Synthetic Reefer Madness

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#882: Synthetic Reefer Madness

#882: Synthetic Reefer Madness

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KAREN DUFFIN, BYLINE: Hello, PLANET MONEY listeners. This is Karen Duffin, and I am here to ask you a very small favor. We would love your feedback about the show - good, bad, ugly. We want all of it. All you have to do is go to npr.org/planetmoneysurvey. That is all one word. And, look. You give us feedback about the show, we make better shows. So I kind of think everybody wins. That is npr.org/planetmoneysurvey. Thanks so much. Hope you enjoy the show.

KENNY MALONE, HOST:

Just a warning. This is a story about drugs, and there is one brief, bleeped swear word.

Oh, my God. It's so loud here.

ALEXI HOROWITZ-GHAZI, HOST:

(Laughter) I know.

MALONE: All right. Alexi and I are at an intersection in Brooklyn.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Myrtle and Broadway.

MALONE: I think this is the most New York intersection I've ever seen. We've got bodegas everywhere.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: There's rust and graffiti.

MALONE: Cars crisscrossing through here.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Going whatever direction they want to go.

MALONE: And, like, the best thing of all, this guy standing behind us wearing a New York Yankees hat who keeps asking if he can swear into our microphones.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: I think we've got to let him do it.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: [Expletive] everything.

MALONE: Yep. There you go. Anyway, we came to this intersection because about two years ago, something totally bizarre happened here. There was one essential key witness, and we're waiting for him to meet us here.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: I think he's actually walking up right behind you now.

MALONE: Great. Brian?

BRIAN ARTHUR: Yes.

MALONE: Great to meet you, man.

ARTHUR: Nice to meet you.

MALONE: Brian Arthur is 40 years old. He works as an overnight doorman. And in July of 2016, he was just getting home from a shift. It was about 9:00 in the morning, and he was walking down this street.

ARTHUR: And as I turned the corner over there, up that block is where you see guys just on the floor and just shaking and stuff like that. I just said, let me take out my phone and record this.

MALONE: Brian decides to stream what he is seeing on Facebook Live.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ARTHUR: Live and direct from the Stuy. Zombies at Myrtle and Broadway. Yo.

MALONE: Brian's video shows two, maybe three guys on their feet but just, like, wobbling like a bowling pin that won't fall over.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ARTHUR: Look at these dudes. Yo, look. They can't even stand straight. Look. One more over here. Look at this.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: You see a guy slumped over the top of a fire hydrant.

MALONE: Then Brian swings the camera to the left, and now there's a guy in the middle of the street.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ARTHUR: Look at my man right here. Look. Look, he's fighting with the cops. He can't stand up straight. This dude crazy.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: There are now five, six, seven of these zombified people. EMTs have started dealing with people lying on the ground shaking.

MALONE: And Brian cannot believe what he's seeing.

ARTHUR: This is crazy right now. This is, like, zombie-land over here.

MALONE: What Brian was seeing was a mass overdose. More than 30 people wound up in the hospital after taking a mysterious strain of what's sometimes called synthetic marijuana.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: But it is totally not like marijuana or like any other drug before it, really.

ARTHUR: Back in the days when there was dope and there was crack, that epidemic was similar to this. But I've lived here for over 20-plus years, and I've never seen this type of reaction to a drug.

MALONE: Brian's video went viral, and the Brooklyn zombie outbreak became national news.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: And these bizarre outbreaks, they keep happening.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDINGS)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: An overdose of synthetic marijuana drug...

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: The latest outbreak of synthetic pot...

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: Twenty people are sickened on Skid Row from an unidentified...

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #4: One death and dozens of hospitalizations in Mississippi.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #5: Claimed two lives and sent at least 56 people to the hospital here in Illinois.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #6: New Haven, more than a hundred overdoses in 48 hours.

(SOUNDBITE OF LEIGH MCALLISTER GRACIE'S "EDGE OF FEAR")

MALONE: Hello, and welcome to PLANET MONEY. I'm Kenny Malone.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: And I'm Alexi Horowitz-Ghazi. When you watch coverage of the drug epidemic in the U.S., you will hear the word synthetic over and over. Synthetic opioids, synthetic cathinones and synthetic cannabinoids.

MALONE: But for most of human history, drugs came from plants. If you wanted to get people high, you had to grow things - poppies, coca plants, marijuana.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Then came things like LSD, ecstasy, meth - chemicals synthesized in the lab instead of grown in the field.

MALONE: But over the last two decades, the illicit drug trade has undergone a new kind of industrial revolution. There's been an explosion in the variety of synthetic drugs. They've gotten more potent, more profitable and you can now become a drug kingpin with just an Internet connection and the email address of a chemical factory in China.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Today on the show, the story of the synthetic drug revolution and how it may all lead back to one well-intentioned professor in South Carolina.

(SOUNDBITE OF LEIGH MCALLISTER GRACIE'S "EDGE OF FEAR")

MALONE: All right. This is a sprawling story that takes us to a lot of characters across the world so we are going to break this into three chapters.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Chapter 1, The White Coats.

MALONE: As in lab coats.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: First, if you could just introduce yourself?

MARILYN HUESTIS: Yes. This is Marilyn Huestis. I am a professor at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: In movies about global zombie or pathogen outbreaks, there's always a moment where somebody sees the outbreak coming before almost anyone else.

MALONE: For our story about the synthetic drug epidemic, one of those moments came about 10 years ago in Germany at a professional conference.

HUESTIS: The conference was the International Association of Forensic Toxicologists - TIAFT, for short.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Marilyn actually used to be the president of this organization. She's kind of a big deal in the world of drug abuse research.

MALONE: But when Marilyn showed up for the conference that year, she says everyone was talking about this weird drug outbreak in Germany. People had been getting high and acting very strange.

HUESTIS: They'd stop at a stop light, and the light would change and change and change, and they would never go and the people are honking. There were crashes. And they would call it Spice.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: You'll hear this called a few names - synthetic marijuana, synthetic cannabinoids, K2.

MALONE: In Germany, though, it was Spice. And German officials managed to get their hands on some of this stuff.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: When they looked at this Spice, it appeared to be just a mixture of, like, dried plants. So the mystery was, what the hell is this stuff?

MALONE: Are these some new kinds of plants we've never seen before? Are these plants laced with something weird? Is there a charming German scientist who can help us figure this out?

CHRISTIAN STOIP: My name is Christian Stoip (ph).

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Christian is a research pharmacist, specializes in chemical analysis. He gets a call from a German official explaining that there has been this outbreak.

STOIP: More and more people became interested in the smoking of what's it called? (Speaking foreign language) or incense mix, it was called. And it's Spice.

MALONE: The German government sends a sample of this spice over to Christian's lab in Frankfurt, which, by the way, apparently is very strange-looking.

STOIP: Yeah. It looks like a witch's house.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: So Christian gets to work trying to figure out what is in this mysterious Spice blend.

STOIP: I injected it into an HPLC, a DAD.

MALONE: Which, you know, of course, gives you the UV specs.

STOIP: Which goes through the HPLC column.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Which, as we all know, gets you to the GCMS.

STOIP: Gas chromatography-mass spectrometry reader.

MALONE: (Laughter).

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Of course.

MALONE: Anyway, here's what he eventually figured out. People were not getting high from the dried plants. They were getting high because the dried plants were sprayed with a chemical.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: And he was even able to figure out the name of that chemical.

STOIP: JWH018.

HUESTIS: Yeah. JWH018.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: So Professor Marilyn Huestis is at the German conference and hearing this epic tale - the weird symptoms, the mysterious plant mix, the German chemist in a witch's house.

MALONE: And when it's revealed that the chemical these plants were sprayed with was called JWH018, Marilyn is like, holy crap. Those aren't just some random letters. Those are initials.

HUESTIS: That stands for John W. Huffman, who was an excellent medicinal chemist. I knew him personally, and he was, you know, highly respected for his work.

JOHN W HUFFMAN: I'm back.

MALONE: Hey, John.

HUFFMAN: Hello.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Hello, hello.

MALONE: Can you hear us?

HUFFMAN: Yeah. I can hear.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: John W. Huffman is 86 years old. He's a retired organic chemistry professor from Clemson University in South Carolina.

MALONE: And, yes, we know the name Professor Huffman sounds like the name of a scientist from a stoner movie.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: But John W. Huffman is not that kind of scientist.

MALONE: Have you ever taken one of your compounds?

HUFFMAN: No.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: You say that pretty emphatically.

HUFFMAN: (Laughter). Yes.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: John's part of this story starts back in the early 1990s.

HUFFMAN: Let me explain how we got into the synthetic cannabinoid business.

MALONE: A few years earlier, scientists had discovered a thing in the body that they called the cannabinoid receptor.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: One thing it does, gets you high from pot. It's the part of your body that THC interacts with.

MALONE: But this receptor seemed to be connected to all sorts of other things in your body, as well. Your sleep, your appetite, your pain.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Which meant scientists might be able to discover new medicines.

MALONE: But first they needed to figure out how this receptor even works.

HUFFMAN: And that sounded like a fun puzzle to attack. And anyway, I did some half-baked computer modeling studies.

MALONE: Hey, John. I don't want to cut you off. But are you aware that half-baked has marijuana connotations? Are you making a pun?

HUFFMAN: No.

MALONE: OK. I just wasn't sure.

HUFFMAN: I wasn't aware (laughter) of it.

MALONE: There's a movie called "Half Baked." It's very funny.

HUFFMAN: I'll have to look it up.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: John's job was to synthesize brand-new chemicals that might trigger this receptor. And then those compounds got tested on mice and rat brains.

MALONE: So John starts synthesizing them. And for record keeping, he names each new compound in his research using his initials and then a number.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: So JWH01, JWH02.

MALONE: Eventually, he makes JWH018.

HUFFMAN: It's simply a light-yellow goo. It was the 18th compound that we synthesized in this series, and we set it off and it was pretty potent. Never thought anything of it.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: John and his colleagues eventually created and tested over 300 brand-new compounds.

MALONE: JWH018 was literally one of hundreds. And John kind of forgot about it - until about 15 years later, when he gets an email.

HUFFMAN: Well, the email was from a blogger in Germany, and he said that they had discovered that one of our compounds had been found in a drug called Spice.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: And John was pretty sure he knew how his initials wound up on some drugs in some Germans. When John and his colleagues created those 300-some synthetic cannabinoids, they did what scientists are supposed to do. They published their findings.

MALONE: They explained which of these compounds triggered the cannabinoid receptor, what kinds of effects got triggered and they also included directions for how to replicate the process.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: John was almost certain that some enterprising chemist had looked at his paper, noticed that JWH018 was one of the most potent compounds and then followed the directions to make it again.

HUFFMAN: The compounds are actually not difficult to make.

MALONE: Are we talking, like, Easy Bake Oven, children's toy, easy to make?

HUFFMAN: Yeah. Almost.

MALONE: You see that somewhere, your initials and that number, and, like, what do you think?

HUFFMAN: I thought that, (laughter), probably, that it was probably inevitable that somebody was going to use it to get high.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Authorities think that the German version of John's compound was manufactured somewhere in China.

MALONE: Which makes sense because over the last few decades, the U.S. has outsourced a ton of pharmaceutical manufacturing to China. That's helped build the capacity of chemical laboratories to produce any kind of compound, including one ripped from a science journal.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: What we don't know is exactly who did it, what lab it came from, or precisely when it happened.

MALONE: But it's hard to overstate what this meant for the global drug market. It was one of the first signs that an industrial revolution had begun.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Because think about how hard it used to be to get people high by messing with the cannabinoid receptor. You needed marijuana plants. You needed space to grow them, sunlight to grow them. You needed people to do it. You needed time, tons of time. And after all of that, this giant plant would produce a little bit of stuff that would get you stoned.

MALONE: JWH018 had only been tested on mouse and rat brains, but it seemed to do something to people's brains. And more importantly, it was way more efficient to produce and distribute than marijuana.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: German officials outlawed JWH018 the month after it was identified, but it didn't matter. Chemists just tweaked their formulas and stayed one step ahead of the law.

MALONE: Which brings us to Chapter 2, The Legal Gray Area. Subtitle, Better Call Kurzman.

(SOUNDBITE OF AD)

UNIDENTIFIED NARRATOR: At Kurzman Grant law office, you'll not only get a knowledgeable, skilled and dependable attorney who will fight for your rights...

MALONE: This is a commercial for attorney Marc Kurzman.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: And this is attorney Marc Kurzman.

MARC KURZMAN: I received a call from a client. He called me and asked me what I knew about K2. And I asked him why he was asking me about a mountain in the Himalayas.

(LAUGHTER)

MALONE: Back in 2008, Marc didn't know anything about Spice or K2, but he was better-prepared than almost anyone to navigate the legal gray area around recreational drugs.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: He represented the owners of so-called head shops. These are places that sell bongs and rolling papers and other things that could be used to smoke marijuana. But back when marijuana was illegal in most states, a big part of Marc's job was to make sure his clients didn't say they were selling weed paraphernalia.

KURZMAN: You have to instruct them on how to speak with their customers because they cannot be offering things for use with illegal substances. So it's a scripting game, quite frankly, where everybody knows what everybody else is talking about.

MALONE: In 2008, head shops were the perfect place to start selling Spice. And so Marc's clients start calling him and saying, hey, Marc. There's this weird new product on the market. We can get it on the Internet from China. We may or may not already be selling it. Is that all right?

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: So Marc is like, let me look into this. And what he discovered was that many synthetic cannabinoids at that point were not explicitly banned on a federal level.

MALONE: There was this one law Marc was primarily worried about, the Federal Analogue Act, which essentially said you can't knowingly sell something that does the same thing as an outlawed substance. But Marc was pretty sure he could get around that.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: So Marc calls his clients back and tells them, I think you can sell this stuff, but here are some very important points.

MALONE: No. 1. Please, just be a responsible human being. Don't sell this to people under 18, or if, I don't know, you think they're going to smoke it and then get behind the wheel of a car.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: No. 2. You cannot market this as a drug. The packages need to say, not for human consumption. And your employees, they need to stick to a tight script.

MALONE: Let's - will you play the cashier for me at a store? So I walk in. I have heard about it. I'm pretty naive. I'm saying, is this the Spice that my friends have been talking about? This is the right stuff? And you would be able to say, what?

HUFFMAN: I have no idea what your friends are speaking about.

MALONE: They told me there's this thing that's, like, a little bit like pot, and I can - I don't - I guess smoke it, or snort it or something? Is this it?

HUFFMAN: Not to my knowledge. And if that's something that you want to get, you can't buy anything here. Please leave.

MALONE: OK. So that would be a bad way for me to go to one of your stores that are complying.

(LAUGHTER)

HUFFMAN: If you wanted to get it, yeah, that'd be a bad way.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: But for more savvy customers who didn't ask a lot of questions, they could walk into a head shop, buy a packet of synthetic cannabinoids and walk out the door.

MALONE: And this wasn't just head shops. You may remember this weird period of time where you would walk into a bodega or a gas station and there were all of these bright, shiny packages labeled as, like, incense or potpourri. And, personally speaking, I had no idea what any of it was. It was super confusing.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: But what it was was a drug market in plain sight.

MALONE: Now, it's not like drug enforcement officials were not aware of this problem. Many states were trying to ban particular strains of synthetic cannabinoids as they popped up, but that may have made the problem worse because the chemists making these would just change their recipes.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: One expert told us it was like a Hydra's head. You stop one strain, three or four new ones might pop up to take its place. And so what had started as Spice in Germany eventually turned into dozens of different products with different strains of chemicals and different fancy packages sporting ridiculous brand names.

MALONE: Krypton for one.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Mr. Happy.

MALONE: There was Banana Cream Nuke.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: I can't tell if that sounds appetizing.

MALONE: That sounds delicious and dangerous.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Yeah. Anyway, the exploding synthetic cannabinoid market was quite profitable for Mark's clients.

MARK KURTZMAN: All of a sudden, marginal businesses were making significant sums of money. They would buy something for pennies, and they would sell it for dollars.

MALONE: I mean, that's (laughter) 1,000 percent mark-up.

KURTZMAN: It is. Yeah, I know. The clients who previously had been making five-, six-, $700,000 a year were making four-, five-, six-, $7 million a year.

MALONE: Did you ever try the product?

KURTZMAN: No.

MALONE: Were you worried about the chemical impact of it?

KURTZMAN: I don't take unknown substances into my body. I think that's an incredibly risky and very stupid thing to do.

MALONE: But you're OK with other people doing it.

KURTZMAN: I'm OK with people making their own decisions about what they do with their own bodies, so long as they are not doing it in a way that is going to be directly harmful to others.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Word got out that Mark was a guy who could help you sell this stuff legally.

MALONE: He did insist that his clients got their chemicals tested to make sure that there weren't obvious poisons or banned chemicals in them.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: He ended up with around 50 clients from head shop owners to wholesalers importing from China. And for a while, it became his entire business.

MALONE: This period of time is one of the big reasons the synthetic drug market got so big from the demand side. For a few years, customers could buy legal substances that were cheap, potent and would not show up on standard drug tests.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: But eventually, Mark's part of the Spice party started to wind down around 2011. It's a little complicated, but Mark lost a legal challenge and felt like he couldn't tell his clients in good faith that they could still sell this stuff legally.

MALONE: And then in 2012, President Obama signed the Synthetic Drug Abuse Prevention Act, which explicitly banned a broad list of synthetic substances.

KURTZMAN: And so anybody who wanted to follow the law knew at that point, you may not like it. Maybe it's unfair. Now your recourse is go lobby Congress because you can't say anymore I can do it because I don't understand it because that's been lost.

MALONE: So basically, what you're saying is once the writing was on the wall - like, I guess in this case, literally, once the federal legislation was dry, you were just like, I have no more - like, you - if you want me to help you do this, I'm not going to do it anymore...

KURTZMAN: I'm not going to do it. Right.

MALONE: ...Because it's illegal. There's no...

KURTZMAN: Right.

MALONE: ...Tight rope to walk anymore. It is all cut and dry, and I'm gone.

KURTZMAN: Yep.

MALONE: OK. So it's all fixed - and no more Spice, no problem.

KURTZMAN: Yeah, sure (laughter).

MALONE: OK. So we've had the white coats. We've had the legal gray area. And after the break, the Spice world turns into a full-fledged black market.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: And we visit a lab of scientists trying to predict the future.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MALONE: Chapter 3 - The Black Market.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: You will recall the Brooklyn zombie outbreak.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ARTHUR: This is crazy, man. This is like "Zombieland" over here.

MALONE: This happened nearly eight years after JWH-018 was first identified on the streets of Germany, which means chemists had been tweaking and morphing their formulas for eight years.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: So whatever had caused this outbreak was many generations removed from what John Huffman had created in his lab - and many times more potent.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ARTHUR: Yo, tell your kids, please - tell your family, yo, if they on that K2, stay off of that, man. That's not what's up, man.

MALONE: Police knew the Brooklyn zombies had taken some form of K2 or synthetic cannabinoid. They were able to figure out that it was being sold under the name AK-47 24 Karat Gold, but that was just the branding. They had no clue what chemicals were actually in this product.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: So they didn't know how to tell if other people were overdosing on the same drug. They didn't know how best to treat those people. And if they happened to catch the person putting it out on the street, you can't successfully prosecute without knowing what the chemical is.

MALONE: And so authorities got a hold of some of this AK-47 24 Karat Gold stuff. They also got some blood and urine samples from people who had taken it. And they sent all of this off to a special lab in San Francisco.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Did you ever see the Facebook Live of that outbreak?

SAM BANISTER: I did, actually.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: This is medicinal chemist Sam Banister. He works with a drug science research group based out of a lab at UC San Francisco. The group has kind of a long name. It's called Psychoactive Surveillance Consortium and Analysis Network. They call it P SCAN for short.

MALONE: P SCAN - is that intentional?

BANISTER: Yeah.

MALONE: Like checking people's urine?

BANISTER: Yeah.

MALONE: Oh, my God.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Anyway, they were the group that was asked to figure out what the Brooklyn zombies took.

BANISTER: We were able to identify that a particular compound was responsible - this drug called AMB-FUBINACA. We were able to identify that in a number of days. And AMB-FUBINACA derives from a patent published by Pfizer disclosing a lot of related molecules.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Pfizer, as in the massive pharmaceutical company. Just like JWH-018, AMB-FUBINACA appears to be a recipe ripped straight from the literature. Instead of an academic journal, this one came from patent paperwork.

MALONE: Over 500 strains of new synthetic compounds have been identified on the streets at this point. Some were invented by enterprising black-market chemists, but a lot of those strains seem to still get poached from legitimate scientific outlets.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: And this, Sam Banister says, is a very troubling problem. Science is built on publishing experiments in a way that can be replicated. And if you're trying to do legitimate research into the possibilities or the dangers of synthetic cannabinoids, you run the risk of making things worse.

MALONE: Case in point, a synthetic drug that was found in Europe not so long ago.

BANISTER: I was contacted by the head of the Finnish police because they'd actually intercepted, at the border level in Finland on route from Hong Kong, one kilogram of SDB-006 and one kilogram of SDB-12 (ph).

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: SDB, as in Sam D. Banister.

MALONE: At least one compound Sam had made for legitimate purposes seemed to have been poached from an academic journal and then manufactured as a brand-new street drug.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: And he was shocked because it happened super fast.

BANISTER: It was detected approximately six months after that article went online. So really, a pretty short turnaround.

MALONE: For his part, when Sam discovers a new compound, he very intentionally does not publish it right away.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: And this lab Sam works with has taken a radical approach to the synthetic drug war. They have this one project that is known as the Prophetic Library.

MALONE: Prophetic, as in trying to predict the future.

BANISTER: We're building a library of the drugs that will probably emerge on the streets in the next few years.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: So you're, like, searching for the street drugs of the future?

BANISTER: Yeah, yeah. I think that's probably exactly it.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Sam and his colleagues are trying to invent new synthetic drugs before the chemists on the black market invent them. That way, when a new drug does hit the street, at least the Prophetic Library can help officials identify what people have taken and maybe treat those people.

MALONE: Officials can also use that information to outlaw new compounds as they hit the streets. But Sam says the law is not going to change the economics of this synthetic drug problem. It is just so profitable to make and sell these drugs. For example, Sam says, look at AMB-FUBINACA, the drug from the Brooklyn zombie outbreak.

BANISTER: AMB-FUBINACA could be obtained from China at about $3,500 for one kilogram of material. And we know that that's sort of, at least, somewhere between - I'm just trying to do the mental calculation - somewhere between, probably, 500,000 and a million doses.

MALONE: A dose that Sam says would sell for about a dollar apiece, meaning if you can get just $3,500 worth of this product into the country, you could sell it for more than $500,000 dollars.

BANISTER: I think it's just truly ruthless profiteering. I mean, there is money to be made on an enormous scale, and I think that's really what drives it. There's - obviously, there's no concern for the people who are actually using these drugs, or you wouldn't find people selling fentanyl analogs that are so potent.

MALONE: Fentanyl, as in the synthetic opioid. And it's followed pretty much the same path as synthetic cannabinoids.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Fentanyl started out as a legitimate medicine, but black-market chemists figured out how to make it, then figured out how to make it even more potent. And now it's killing tens of thousands of people. It's part of the same synthetic drug revolution ushered in by JWH-018.

MALONE: It's now been nearly 30 years since John Huffman created JWH-018. And he told us, for better or worse, people now associate him with synthetic cannabinoids. He's gotten a strange array of emails from people over the years. Sometimes people write and ask him for advice on how to cook their own synthetic cannabinoids. But sometimes, these emails are from parents and grandparents. They say, these drugs are causing psychosis in my kids, in my grandkids, and they blame John.

HUFFMAN: You know, you've ruined my life. You've ruined my kid's life, et cetera, et cetera - that kind of thing.

MALONE: That's not a very fun email to get.

HUFFMAN: No, they're not. They're not enjoyable. And I feel sorry for them, but it isn't my fault.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: John says, what else was he supposed to do? Scientists publish their science. How could he have anticipated that one compound from his research would help jump-start a global synthetic drug revolution?

(SOUNDBITE OF DANIEL TEPER AND PETER HAJIOFF'S "SPINNING PIANO")

MALONE: The drug epidemic is a story much larger than one 25-minute episode. We would love to hear your ideas about how to cover it. You can get in touch with us - planetmoney@npr.org.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Today's episode was produced by Sally Helm and Nick Fountain.

MALONE: Our supervising producer is Alex Goldmark. Our stories are edited by Bryant Urstadt.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: I'm Alexi Horowitz-Ghazi.

MALONE: And I'm Kenny Malone. Thanks for listening.

(SOUNDBITE OF DANIEL TEPER AND PETER HAJIOFF'S "SPINNING PIANO")

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