MOST synthetic cannabinoids were designed for research purposes at a United States university by a retired chemist named John Huffman.
Mr Huffman aimed to achieve the benefits of marijuana without the high by testing the effects of cannabinoid receptors in the brain. The research eventually ceased, but in that time he and his team developed hundreds of synthetic compounds that affected these receptors. It was only a matter of time until others began using his chemical designs to make drugs.
CQUniversity professor and pharmaceutical chemist Dr Andrew Fenning said the human body had two chemical receptors that reacted to cannabinoids such as Delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol, the active ingredient in cannabis. These are the cb1 and cb2 receptors.
"They can react in several ways but essentially it's a lock and key situation. You need the right key to get the effects," Dr Fenning said.
"The problem with synthetic cannabinoids is that they just don't know. The dangers of using these drugs are really unknown, it all depends on how the receptors react.
"Basically there needs to be a lot more testing done because when you're tinkering with chemical structures you just don't know the potency levels and what it will do to the human body."
He said functionally and physiologically the chemicals do the same as marijuana as they target the same two receptors.
"But they are now tinkering on the fly, so the potency and toxicity levels are a complete unknown," Dr Fenning said.
"The funny thing is they could change one little thing in the chemicals and it may not work, people could be taking a placebo. On the other hand, it could be much more potent, with extremely strong reactions."
Dr Fenning said it takes 10 years to get a new pharmaceutical drug onto the market, with rigorous testing at many levels.
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