Updated on April 26, 2018.
Medical content reviewed by Dr. Joseph Rosado, MD, M.B.A, Chief Medical Officer
Cannabinoids give cannabis its power to relieve pain, end nausea and reduce the length and frequency of seizures. One product alone couldn’t have all the healing effects of medical marijuana, but there are many cannabinoids in a cannabis plant.
The isolation of any one of these powerful components spurred scientists’ desire to recreate a cannabinoid without growing the whole plant. However, synthetic cannabinoids don’t exactly hold the key to healing found in the organic plant matter of a cannabis plant.
What Are Synthetic Cannabinoids?
The primary cannabinoid in cannabis is THC, which is the substance that creates the high marijuana users often feel. THC has medicinal value for reducing stress, stimulating appetite, relieving pain and reducing nausea. The psychoactive properties of THC were first noticed and studied by modern science.
A synthetic cannabinoid is a chemical combination meant to mimic THC and other cannabinoids found in marijuana. Natural cannabinoids work by inserting themselves into the endocannabinoid system in your brain. That system maintains the status quo for basic functioning, like body temperature and blood sugar levels. Cannabinoids bind with the endocannabinoid receptors in your brain and alter the messages sent throughout that system.
Synthetic cannabinoids also bind with the cannabinoid receptors in your brain. In some cases, they have an unknown or unpredictable effect on the messages sent throughout your body. The chemical makeup of a synthetic cannabinoid is similar but not identical to its natural counterpart.
How Are Synthetic Cannabinoids Made?
There are more than 700 research chemicals called synthetic cannabinoids that claim to have duplicated the individual active ingredients in cannabis with chemicals in a laboratory. The results are close, but surprisingly inaccurate at the same time.
Synthetic cannabinoids start with the recipe for THC, for example. The chemical structure of THC is documented and well-known in industry circles. A chemist making synthetic THC will use the same formula but slightly alter some of the molecules. A carbon atom might be replaced with a nitrogen atom, but the changes are so small that you wouldn’t think they’d make a difference.
Changing the chemical makeup of a cannabinoid to make a synthetic cannabinoid helps chemical makers avoid drug laws. Ultimately, substances are identified and banned based on their chemical structure. When tested, a synthetic cannabinoid that’s one or two atoms off from a natural cannabinoid is not an illegal substance.
Most of this chemical work is done in China and other countries where the laws about drugs are not as clearly defined as they are in the United States. These chemists aren’t thinking about whether they’re creating harmful products — their main goal is to make a product that sells. To sell it, they have to get it into the American market, and they know which chemical formulas won’t make it through customs.
Once these synthetic cannabinoids are in the country, they’re used to produce street drugs like K-2 and spice — a collection of harmless herbs dried and chopped up to look like marijuana. The synthetic cannabinoid is then sprayed on the plant material. Spice looks like marijuana and is sold as synthetic marijuana. Since there’s no actual marijuana in it, it’s technically legal to sell on the open market.
Benefits of Natural Cannabinoids Over Synthetic
There’s no question that the best form of cannabinoids comes from an actual cannabis plant. Cannabis is grown commercially and bred to emphasize certain properties while deemphasizing others. In this way, the balance of cannabinoids that naturally occur in the plant is altered. But, the cannabinoids maintain their natural chemical structure because the plant is not altered at a molecular level.
Synthetic cannabinoids are not really cannabinoids at all. Once the chemical formula of a cannabinoid is altered by even one atom, it’s not the same substance. In the case of drugs that interact with your brain chemistry, close enough is not close enough.
Synthetic cannabinoids are marketed as a legal way to get high, and many are formulated to be far more potent than their natural counterparts.
They’re known to cause these side effects:
Most of these side effects are conditions or symptoms that medical marijuana is used to treat — meanwhile, synthetic marijuana causes these conditions. That alone tells you that synthetic cannabinoids aren’t just like natural ones. Although their chemical formula is very similar, the effects the drugs have on humans are quite different.
Many jurisdictions consider synthetic cannabinoids a threat to public health and safety — the number of synthetic drug users in hospital emergency rooms is increasing in many areas. By comparison, natural cannabinoids in real cannabis don’t pose a threat to health or a risk of overdose.
Natural cannabinoids are known to relieve severe cases of nausea associated with chemotherapy and other chronic disease treatments. They also reduce extreme nerve pain that doesn’t respond to traditional pain relievers. Natural cannabinoids can take the place of opioid painkillers and eliminate the risk of a life-threatening addiction for people suffering from chronic pain.
Muscle spasms, seizures and tremors are all reduced or eliminated by natural cannabinoids found in marijuana, making it a useful treatment for people with Parkinson’s, epilepsy, multiple sclerosis and other chronic debilitating conditions. In the right form and doses, medical marijuana can be used to treat depression and reduce anxiety to improve quality of life.
Natural cannabinoids are available from licensed dispensaries in most legal states. They are contained in medical marijuana that’s commercially produced to accentuate the natural healing properties of cannabis. Medical marijuana is produced in different forms, under the supervision of an objective inspector, to make it easy for patients to get what they need.
Synthetic cannabinoids are not a substitute for the real thing. To learn more about how you might benefit from marijuana treatment, find a medical marijuana doctor near you.