(CNN) -- The latest trend at teen parties isn't warm beer or prescription medicines pilfered from parents' medicine cabinets. Instead, increasing numbers of youths are turning to an herb-based product to get high, and unlike marijuana, it's perfectly legal.
Synthetic marijuana, marketed as K2 or Spice, is an herbal substance sold as an incense or smoking material that remains legal in the United States. The products contain one or more synthetic compounds that behave similarly to the primary psychoactive constituent of marijuana, &Delta9-tetrahydrocannabinol or THC.
The compound most commonly found in these products is a chemical first synthesized by the well-known Clemson University organic chemist, Prof John W Huffman: the eponymous JWH-018. Another compound, found in Spice products sold in Germany, is an analog of CP-47,497, a cannabinoid developed by Pfizer over 20 years ago.
Known as (1-pentyl-3-(1-naphthoyl)indole), or the more proper IUPAC name of Naphthalen-1-yl-(1-pentylindol-3-yl)methanone, JWH-018 is one of over 100 indoles, pyrroles, and indenes synthesized by the Huffman laboratory to develop cannabimimetics, drugs that mimic the effect of cannabinoids such as THC. The primary goal of these studies was to create pharmacological probes to 1) determine the structure-activity relationships of these compounds and 2) tease out the physiological function of subtypes of receptors we have for cannabinoids: the CB1 and CB2 receptors.
What does it do?
Much of the biological assessment work of Dr. Huffman's compounds was carried out by the laboratory of Professor Billy R. Martin of the Medical College of Virginia. Dr. Martin, a native of North Carolina, was a giant in the field and sadly left us two summers ago at the all-too-young age of 65 (obituary).
According to this 2000 paper in Drug and Alcohol Dependence from the Huffman and Martin groups, JWH-018 binds to the psychotropic CB1 receptor with approximately 4 times the potency of the naturally-occurring THC. Unlike THC, which binds with almost equal affinity to CB1 and CB2 receptors, JHW-018 exhibits a 3-fold preference for CB1 receptors.