Log in

Get your medical card online in minutes!

Get started

What Are Cannabinoids, Exactly?

infographic of cannabinoids - showing the major and minor cannabinoids

Cannabinoids are chemical substances that naturally occur in the cannabis plant (phytocannabinoids) and the mammalian body (endocannabinoids). The most well-known cannabinoids in cannabis are cannabidiol (CBD) and tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the primary psychoactive compound in marijuana. But CBD and THC are just two of up to or perhaps more than 150 cannabinoids in the cannabis plant.

Discover the different types of cannabinoids and their role in human health, including their vital connection to the endocannabinoid system (ECS).

Get Your Medical Card

Connect with a licensed physician online in minutes.

What Are Cannabinoids?

There are three main cannabinoids: endocannabinoids, phytocannabinoids, and synthetic cannabinoids. Some compounds are not cannabinoids but have cannabinoid-like effects on the body, and these are called “cannabimimetic.” The distinction between the different types of cannabinoids is their source of production.


Endocannabinoids are cannabinoids that the body naturally produces. Also called endogenous cannabinoids, these molecules serve as neurotransmitters or chemical messengers to different parts of your body—these neurotransmitters transport signals between nerve cells, carrying instructions on pain, pleasure, and other sensations.

The two most important endocannabinoids that scientists have discovered are anandamide and 2-AG. These endocannabinoids bind to phytocannabinoids when a person consumes cannabis. Anandamide is analogous to THC and is sometimes called the “bliss molecule.”


Phytocannabinoids are cannabinoids that the cannabis plant produces, and CBD and THC are the two best-known phytocannabinoids. All phytocannabinoids bind to cannabinoid receptors (CB1 and CB2), where they affect the immune system, cognitive functions, and many other components of the brain and body.

Synthetic Cannabinoids

Synthetic cannabinoids are lab-made cannabinoids that do not have the safety profile phytocannabinoids do and can be pretty harmful. However, some synthetic cannabinoids may have a place for therapeutic and clinical use. More research needs to be done in this area, and synthetic cannabinoids should be regulated. Due to the lack of research and improper regulation, we recommend that patients refrain from utilizing non-prescribed synthetic cannabinoids.


These compounds can have effects similar to cannabis and cannabinoids but are not cannabinoids. Cannabimimetics may also interact with the ECS. Examples of cannabimimetic plants include:

  • Coneflower (Echinacea) — targets CB1 and CB2 receptors.
  • Black pepper — contains the alkaloid guineensine, which also affects the ECS and has anti-inflammatory properties.
  • Rosemary — contains the terpenoids alpha- and beta-Amyrin, which can target the ECS and has potential anti-inflammatory properties.
  • Chocolate — contains cannabinoid-like compounds that interact directly or indirectly with the ECS, in particular N-oleolethanolamine (OEA) and N-linoleoylethanolamine.

Major and Minor Cannabinoids

Scientists have discovered and identified up to  150 phytocannabinoids in the cannabis plant. Scientific research will likely unearth even more cannabinoids in the coming decades. Some cannabinoids, like CBD and THC, are considered significant cannabinoids because they are present in high concentrations in the cannabis plant. Other cannabinoids, known as minor cannabinoids, are present in lower concentrations in the cannabis plant.

Major Cannabinoids

CBD and THC are the two major cannabinoids found in the cannabis plant. These cannabinoids are derived from acidic precursors, cannabidiolic acid (CBDA), and tetrahydrocannabinolic acid (THCA).

When CBD and THC are in their acidic precursor form, they do not possess the same intoxicating or psychoactive properties.

Minor Cannabinoids

Just because a cannabinoid is classified as “minor” does not mean it is unimportant. All cannabinoids, terpenes, and flavonoids play a unique therapeutic role through the entourage effect. The collaborative actions of cannabinoids (both major and minor), along with terpenes and flavonoids, unlock maximum therapeutic potential through the entourage effect.

In other words, a minor cannabinoid will be more potent alongside CBD than it would on its own. Some other minor cannabinoids include:

The minor cannabinoids are not as well understood as the major ones, and much more research is needed to define their particular therapeutic properties.

How Cannabinoids Affect the Body

Cannabinoids can have powerful effects on the body and mind. CBD is a popular supplemental treatment for some people with anxiety, while THC provides an enjoyable, therapeutic effect for recreational and medical users alike.

Free Infographic Guide to Cannabinoids

Health Benefits and Uses

Cannabinoids have countless possible health benefits, from relieving minor muscle pain to reducing more severe neuropathic (nerve) pain. The ECS is involved in homeostasis and immune response, and most health problems are associated with out-of-control inflammation and a dysregulated ECS.

Here are some of the ways that cannabinoids may benefit human health:

The above is a partial list of the potential health benefits of cannabinoids, and many more therapeutic uses may be possible. Plus, every state medical program will have a different list of qualifying conditions. Increasingly, however, states recognize the infinite possibilities and do away with qualifying conditions entirely, allowing the decision to be made by the healthcare provider as to whether their patient may benefit from medical cannabis.

Side Effects and Risks

There are some side effects and risks associated with phytocannabinoids. However, most of these side effects and risks are minor, and most are attributed to consuming high amounts of THC. You may not experience any side effects when ingesting cannabinoids, but these are among the most common that people report:

  • Dry mouth (Cottonmouth)
  • Red eyes
  • Headache
  • Nausea
  • Fatigue
  • Racing heartbeat
  • Chills or a clammy feeling
  • Hallucinations and/or disturbing thoughts

These side effects often arise when a person consumes too much cannabis or tries a high dosage of THC that exceeds their tolerance level. Most adverse side-effects of cannabis are relatively tolerable, but some more rare and extreme ones (e.g., hallucinations) may require further consultations with a physician.

Experience the potential healing benefits of an array of cannabinoids with a medical marijuana card. Meet online with Leafwell’s team of medical professionals and apply for your MMJ card today.

Get Your Medical Card

Connect with a licensed physician online in minutes.

Frequently Asked Questions

Are cannabinoids drugs?

Cannabinoids themselves are not necessarily considered "drugs." Phytocannabinoids are chemical substances that naturally occur in cannabis and are considered drugs. Cannabis is classified as a Schedule I controlled substance at the federal level, but cannabinoids are not necessarily directly classified as drugs. However, cannabinoids can have many of the same effects as other drugs, both therapeutic and adverse, and should be consumed under a doctor’s supervision.

Are cannabinoids legal?

Some cannabinoids, like CBD, are legal at the federal level, and others, like delta-9-THC, are illegal at the federal level. Delta-8-THC is legal at the federal level as long as it is derived from a hemp source. As components of medical marijuana, cannabinoids are legal for those who hold a valid medical card.

What are the four major cannabinoids?

The four major cannabinoids are cannabidiol (CBD), delta-9-THC, CBG, and CBC. When in cannabis, they are still in their acidic forms, so the most abundant cannabinoids in cannabis are usually THCA, CBDA, CBGA, and CBCA. These cannabinoids have also been more researched than any others to date. Beta-caryophyllene, sometimes considered an "atypical cannabinoid," is abundant in many cannabis varieties.

Keep Reading