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What Are Synthetic Cannabinoids?

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Synthetic cannabinoids are a class of man-made molecules that bind to the same receptors in our bodies (CB1 and CB2 receptors) as natural cannabinoids found in cannabis plant material. Synthetic cannabinoids are commonly referred to as SCBs. Some have been made illegal, but many others have not. 

Many SCBs were made to replicate the chemical structure and effects of naturally occurring tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD). But do they work in the same way as THC and CBD derived from cannabis?

There is now a market in synthetic and semi-synthetic cannabinoids, as well as semi-synthetic cannabinoids derived from hemp, which have escaped the auspices of regulation. However, just because the laws have not caught up, does not mean that synthetic cannabinoids don’t have many potential risks (and benefits). Learn about the potential dangers of synthetic cannabinoids and the products that contain them. 

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How They Work

The cannabis plant naturally develops a variety of cannabinoids that are kept in balance with one another. Cannabinoids like THC are broken down rapidly by the endocannabinoid system (ECS), meaning that overdose on cannabis alone is more of a theoretical than a practical concern. No one has ever had a deadly overdose from cannabis alone. 

Synthetic cannabinoids, on the other hand, have none of these natural checks and balances, and the differences in their chemical structure mean that the human body cannot break them down as quickly. 

THC is a partial agonist of the CB1 receptor. A synthetic cannabinoid, on the other hand, can be fully agonistic and thus have more potent effects. One such example is HU-210, a highly potent CB1 agonist.

Combined with dangerous interaction between SCBs and other receptors such as serotonin, dopamine, and NMDA glutamate, synthetic cannabinoids constitute a substance that may be far more dangerous than natural cannabis.

Sometimes, it is not the SCB itself but the metabolites the body breaks them down into that are dangerous. These metabolites can be extremely toxic, even at low levels. At the same time, synthetic cannabinoids have a positive side and may serve several medical uses. 

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Benefits and Uses

Synthetic cannabinoids may have some uses in a clinical environment under medical supervision. These artificial cannabinoids can be engineered to target receptors in a particular way and to a greater degree of precision than naturally-derived cannabinoids.

The cannabis plant also contains hundreds of pharmacologically active compounds, all working together. This synergy (called the entourage effect) can be an advantage with regard to safety, where another mitigates the adverse effects of one cannabinoid, but also a disadvantage in that it makes it challenging to target a specific effect.

Some cannabinoids, particularly acidic ones like CBDA and THCA, are notoriously unstable and quickly turn into CBD or THC when exposed to sunlight and oxygen. Synthetic versions of these acidic cannabinoids can be made with greater chemical stability in mind. It is also possible to make semi-synthetic cannabinoids, where the natural cannabinoid can be altered to increase stability.

Some cannabinoids, like delta-8-THC and THC-O, are derived from hemp. It is not unusual to find some of these compounds to be made by utilizing dangerous chemicals and industrial processes. There is little research into the effects of such cannabinoids, and sometimes the pollutants and other chemicals in the product can pose a danger of their own as well. 

Some drugs have successfully been made from synthetically derived cannabinoids. Nabilone is a synthetic form of THC made available in the 1980s for AIDS/HIV and cancer patients. The synthetic cannabinoid product is often prescribed for treating chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting and as an appetite stimulant and pain medication. Dronabinolis a purified version of delta-9-THC. Epidiolex contains CBD extracted from a cannabis plant, with no other cannabinoids or terpenes, and is thus one of the few cannabinoid-based medications available on prescription. Epidiolex is therefore not a synthetic cannabinoid preparation.

Nabilone is generally well-tolerated, as is Dronabinol. However, many people have stated a preference for cannabis, as the faster onset and shorter duration allows patients to dose more effectively.  The presence of other cannabinoids and terpenes may have a tempering effect on THC’s psychoactivity and negative side-effects, on top of potentially providing therapeutic value of their own.  Nabilone is also more potent than THC, so some may find its effects overwhelming by comparison.

Side Effects and Risks

There are several potentially harmful effects associated with using synthetic cannabinoids:

  • Synthetic cannabinoids are not always as well-tolerated by the human body as naturally-derived plant cannabinoids. Synthetic cannabinoids can be rather dangerous.
  • Synthetic cannabinoids are often not tested for their safety. Plus, there is no regulation whatsoever of synthetic cannabinoids sold on the black market. A product sprayed with various synthetic cannabinoids where the dosage cannot every be assured is different from a medical preparation that can be dosed more precisely.
  • Little is known about how synthetic cannabinoids interact with the endocannabinoid system (ECS). We do not know enough about the ECS and the cannabis-derived cannabinoids (phytocannabinoids), let alone synthetic cannabinoids. For this reason, we suggest to avoid consuming it unless you are doing so under medical supervision.

In addition, human consumption of synthetic cannabinoids may lead to the following serious health effects:

  • Addiction
  • Acute kidney injury
  • Significantly depressed breathing
  • Seizures
  • Stroke
  • Tremor
  • Cardiac toxicity
  • Dangerously low levels of potassium in blood serum (hypokalemia)
  • Rapid breakdown of skeletal muscle (rhabdomyolysis)

Be sure to speak with your healthcare provider before consuming any synthetic cannabinoids. 

Products That Contain Synthetic Cannabinoids

K2 and Spice, which have now been made illegal in many places throughout the world due to its addictive and intoxicating effects, are examples of products or “designer” illegal drugs containing synthetic cannabinoids. They can be highly addictive and lead to a fatal overdose. Herbal incense and potpourri are two common names for this type of “fake weed” that attempts to mimic the actions of THC. Such preparations are often made be spraying inert plant material with a solution containing synthetic cannabinoids, and then packaged and sold with no regulatory oversight.

As the ECS is involved in functioning some essential bodily functions (e.g., appetite, sleep cycle regulation, metabolism, immune function), using these chemicals can shut one of these systems off and thus have deadly consequences. Medications like dronabinol that contain synthetic cannabinoids are the exception but must be used under careful medical supervision. 

The Bottom Line: Are Synthetic Cannabinoids Harmful or Helpful?

Synthetic cannabinoids can undoubtedly be helpful in the right context, such as with the prescription drug dronabinol (although natural THC is still arguably better). However, in a non-medical environment, SCBs can be extremely dangerous for people. Avoid purchasing synthetic cannabinoids (or any form of cannabis) from unlicensed dispensaries. 

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Frequently Asked Questions

Is CBD a synthetic cannabinoid?

CBD is a naturally occurring compound in the cannabis plant. Along with THC, CBD is the most prominent cannabinoid found in cannabis. However, scientists can create synthetic derivatives of CBD in a controlled laboratory environment.

Are synthetic cannabinoids a controlled substance?

Synthetic cannabinoids are illegal in some instances and may be considered controlled substances at the federal level. However, this designation is inaccurate across the board and can vary depending on state legislation. There are also many synthetic and semi-synthetic cannabinoids being developed and sold that escape regulations because either a) they’re not widely-known about, and/or b) legislation hasn’t caught up with the science yet.

Furthermore, synthetic cannabinoids are still available for purchase on the black market, and making them illegal cannot entirely eliminate them. Arguably, making cannabis illegal has allowed a black market in dangerous synthetic cannabinoids to develop in the first instance.

What is ‘bad’ about synthetic marijuana?

Synthetic marijuana is not well-tolerated by the human body, and the body does not recognize synthetic cannabinoids or know how to process them. Kidney failure, seizures and strokes, dramatic drops in potassium levels, and other serious side effects from consuming synthetic cannabinoids. In other instances, they may have no effect at all. So it could be said that you are playing with fire by using untested, non-regulated synthetic cannabinoids.

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