Synthetic "JWH-018" Weed Hits Miami, at Least Until the Man Decides to Ban It

It kind of looks like weed. It sort of smells like weed. Pack it into a bowl, light it up, and it'll definitely bake you into a mellow high.

Yet there it is for sale right out on the counter at Laughing Buddha, a cozy smoke shop on bustling Bird Road near Red Road.

Flaky brown hunks are packaged in a round can with a shiny gold label reading "Black Mamba." On the back, large black letters warn, "Not for Human Consumption."

Yeah, right.

The herb isn't marijuana -- it's called damiana, a smokable Southwestern plant sold for years as a non-high-causing pot substitute. Only this damiana has been soaked in a chemical called JWH-018, a synthesized cannabinoid that's 100 percent legal -- and sweeping the nation this year.

The potent fake weed just landed in Miami earlier this month, and so far only Laughing Buddha sells it as far as we can tell. But given the shit storm the drug has already kicked up elsewhere -- earning outright bans in nine countries and one U.S. state in the past year -- you might want to enjoy it while you can.

"We can't keep this stuff on the shelves," says Mike Khaytman, Laughing Buddha's scruffy, bearded manager.

Back in 1994, a chemist named John W. Huffman at Clemson University invented JWH-018, which shares his initials as a tribute. Huffman created the compound while trying to isolate which brain receptors are stoked by THC, the active chemical in old-fashioned marijuana.

At some point in the past two years, several companies began marketing the compound in smokable mixes under brand names such as Spice Gold, Black Mamba, and K2. Though no peer-reviewed research has been done on JWH-018, Huffman showed it affects the brain much the same as THC.

Staffers at our sister papers in Phoenix and Kansas City -- where the product is already much more widespread -- smoked several brands in the past two months. They found that JWH-018 definitely gets you high, though most staffers didn't get the munchies and many reported the high lasted only about half an hour.

(Read the Phoenix New Times piece here, and the KC Pitch story here.)

Bad news for stoners, though: The Man is already on to JWH-018.

Just last week, Kansas Gov. Mark Parkinson signed the first U.S. ban of the product, saying the prohibition "has received overwhelming support by Kansas law enforcement."

Nine countries also criminalized the drug last year, including the UK, Sweden, and Russia. The DEA calls it a "drug and chemical of concern."

But for the moment, at least, it's perfectly legal in Miami -- if you can get your hands on it.

"We've got another shipment coming next week," Mike says. "But I don't expect it to last more than a day or two."

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Tim Elfrink is a former investigative reporter and managing editor for Miami New Times. He has won the George Polk Award and was a finalist for the Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting.
Contact: Tim Elfrink