Why Synthetic Cannabinoids Can Be a Good Thing

Much-maligned synthetic marijuana can have a positive outcome, but it needs to be regulated.

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The use of synthetic cannabinoids is a controversial issue in the cannabis industry. It could be an opportunity to advance the research and development into rare cannabinoids and their medical uses, but synthetics are also misused to tragic effect in the illicit market.

Legal synthetics vs. Illegal synthetics

All synthetic cannabinoids are produced by genetically engineering living cells like algae, bacteria, yeast, or organic chemistry (synthetic chemical biology). In the legal market, we can use synthetic cannabinoids to treat specific health conditions, but they must meet FDA approval and work the same as naturally occurring cannabinoids.

Unfortunately, synthetic marijuana also exists in the illicit market under names like K2, Spice, or Fake Weed. These illegal products are usually manufactured out of the United States with no government oversight, and they can be deadly. The chemical composition and packaging constantly changes to skirt the law and do not represent an authentic THC composition. It only mimics the psychoactive effect you feel, with no redeeming health benefits.

The case for synthetic cannabinoids

We know that there are over 100 cannabinoids found in cannabis plants, but they do not exist in every strain and not at the same potency level. The most well-known and abundant are CBD, CBG, CBN, and THC. These are called major cannabinoids. Minor cannabinoids (the other 100) are rarer and less plentiful.

Synthetic manufacturing can easily generate large quantities of minor cannabinoids that the plant cannot provide without producing large amounts of plant biomass. (Although, seed breeders and growers are experimenting with cultivating custom strains that play with the levels of cannabinoids and terpenes.)

Cannabis is versatile but not potent, which means that large doses of cannabinoids are needed to treat severe conditions like cancer, epilepsy, and Parkinson's. But consuming large quantities has negative side effects.

Synthetic cannabinoids can solve this problem by producing high-potency concentrates in large quantities. Additionally, scientists would have access to an abundance of minor cannabinoids for much-needed research.

Then there is the common problem of a dysfunctional endocannabinoid system which happens when a person doesn't produce enough cannabinoids to keep the body in homeostasis. Once the body's ability to produce cannabinoids declines, it makes us susceptible to illness and disease.

Soon, doctors will be able to look at a person's DNA and identify which cannabinoid is causing the deficiency. Again, bioengineering minor cannabinoids are an excellent solution to a targeted problem. Just think about what the future holds for treating severe illnesses if this is true.

Let's look at the pros and cons of synthetic cannabinoids:

Pros

  • Minor or rare cannabinoids are costly to produce at scale through traditional cultivation and extraction methods because the process requires large amounts of plant biomass.
  • Growing hemp is tricky, and the outcome is prone to inconsistency, whereas bioengineering cannabinoids are precise and deliver consistent results.
  • Scientists would have access to an abundance of minor cannabinoids for clinical research. The lack of access has left us far behind in medical discoveries that could save lives.
  • Synthetic engineering is more environmentally friendly than the energy, land, and water required to grow cannabis.
  • It takes much less time to produce bioengineered cannabinoids than the 4 to 5 months turnaround it takes to grow cannabis.
  • There is no opportunity for heavy metals or pesticides to get into a synthetic composition.

Cons

  • Synthetic engineering is only capable of producing one cannabinoid, eliminating the entourage effect of multiple cannabinoids.
  • What will this mean for our farmers? How can they compete?
  • Without oversight, synthetic engineering can be dangerous. 

There is little difference in the outcome of methods used to create synthetic cannabinoids. Algae, bacteria, yeast, or organic chemistry all can replicate molecules that are chemically identical to endo/phytocannabinoids.

"From a formulation perspective, we are agnostic and see the merits of all forms of phytonutrients—full-spectrum, distillates, isolates, and synthetics," says Hardin Jackson, CEO of Esolate, a formulation company based in Canada. "We are looking forward to having access to rare cannabinoids for better solution-based product offerings in nutraceutical, beverages, or pharmaceuticals. Turning minor cannabinoids into majors through synthetic engineering will make them less rare and reduce research and production costs."

Synthetic medical and pharmaceutical products have a long history of treating illnesses and diseases. Where would we be today if we didn't allow for a compound in the bark of a willow tree to be synthetically and mass-produced to create Bayer Aspirin? Or the chemical synthesis of penicillin, which saved thousands of lives on the battlefield in WWII? Synthetic cannabinoids are poised to make the same impact on our daily lives today.

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