You might have heard people talking about “synthetic cannabinoids” like “bath salts”, “semi-synthetic cannabinoids” as delta-8 THC, CBN, and HHC cannabinoids without really knowing much about them. We think we could all agree that when we see the word “synthetic” we think of something unnatural or made with chemicals – which is true. Further, many would assume that semi-synthetics are also made of chemicals. However, the latter is a misconception we will debunk in this article. The truth is that semi-synthetics can be created with purely natural compounds and they are still completely natural in themselves. Semi-synthetics are merely natural compounds that have been arranged or encouraged by human intervention. Because it involves human intervention, it is semi-synthetic. However, it still remains natural. So, what are synthetics and semi-synthetics? What’s the difference between them? Why don’t we just stick with good old natural medicine? Today we’re going to clear all of that up for you – starting with why these types of cannabinoids were created in the first place.
The Intersection of Plant Medicine and Modern Chemistry
Natural plant medicine has been around for centuries and is one of the oldest forms of healing known to man. Before modern medicine, it was common practice to utilize the plants in your own backyard to treat various ailments. If you’re reading this, we assume you have experienced the power of plant medicine. From the cannabis plant, to a mushroom cap, to the leaves of echinacea flowers, nature has provided us with an abundance of remedies to heal our bodies. In fact, some of our most common medicines are derived from plants.
If you’ve ever taken medication for a headache, heartburn, or even malaria, there’s a good chance it was derived from a plant. This might come as a surprise to some people, but plants have been used for medicinal purposes for centuries. It makes sense that scientists are harnessing the power of plants – using chemistry to improve the efficacy and potency of plant-based therapies.
Some of the most common drugs used today are plant-derived. What if we told you that aspirin is actually plant-derived? Believe it or not, the active ingredient in aspirin – salicylic acid – is found in the leaves of Willow trees. For over 2,000 years our ancestors have been using weeping willows to reduce pain and treat inflammation. However, just because something is plant-derived, doesn’t mean it is natural. In order to understand whether a compound is natural, semi-synthetic, or synthetic, we have to take a look at the chemistry behind them.
Medicinal Chemistry: Harnessing the Power of Plant Medicine
Medicinal chemistry is the study of chemicals used in medicine, and it’s used to unlock and harness the secrets of plant medicine.
While the methods used to harness plant medicine have evolved over time, the underlying principle remains the same: plants possess powerful healing properties that can be used to treat a variety of illnesses. Medicinal chemistry is one way to tap into these properties and create effective treatments. By using this approach, scientists can target specific molecules in plants that are responsible for their therapeutic effects and develop optimized compounds for various treatments. So where is the threshold between natural, semi-synthetic, and synthetic?
From Natural to Synthetic
Depending on how chemists use the information of plant medicine to produce cannabinoids, and whether the substance maintains the chemical structure of the natural compound, it is either considered synthetic or semi-synthetic. Synthetic cannabinoids are created in a lab by pharma companies, usually imitating the molecular structure of a natural cannabinoid but with clear structural modifications, which in turn modifies the effects of the compound. This process is known as synthesis. In contrast, semi-synthetic cannabinoids consist of natural substances that have been isolated from their original plant source and then processed to produce a specific cannabinoid compound. Let’s dive in a little deeper.
Is Delta-8 Natural or Synthetic?
Truth is, both! But closer to natural. Delta-8 is considered semi-synthetic because it does occur naturally in cannabis plants without any human intervention. Much like semi-synthetic cannabinoid HHC, delta-8 only occurs in trace amounts naturally. Because of this, it wouldn’t be financially viable to extract it naturally from the plant. Therefore, scientists use a specific process to create delta-8 directly from CBD. More on that later in this article.
Types of Cannabinoids: Natural, Synthetic, and Semi-Synthetic
There are three main types of cannabinoids: natural (unmodified), synthetic and semi-synthetic.
Naturally Occurring Cannabinoids
Naturally occurring cannabinoids are found in the cannabis plant itself. They are present naturally without any human-intervention. Before 1960, all of the cannabinoids were natural cannabinoids created within the resin glands on flowers, also known as trichomes which have the highest concentration of cannabinoids on the plant.
There are several natural cannabinoids found in marijuana that have demonstrated medicinal value including Delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), cannabidiol (CBD), THCA, CBDA, CBG, CBN, delta-8 THC, CBGA, CBC, THCV, and CBDV.
Cannabinoids are considered synthetic when they are created purely from chemical compounds. These cannabinoids have been artificially made in a laboratory to mimic the properties of naturally occurring cannabinoids. Although they are designed to induce effects similar to naturally occurring cannabinoids, they do not contain natural compounds.
This method is attractive to some manufacturers and buyers for several reasons. Notably:
- Chemists are able to design compounds that selectively activate CB1 and/or CB2 cannabinoid receptors in the endocannabinoid system to produce the desired effect.
- Production is cheap and easy, without the need for plant cultivation or sunlight.
- They are not derived directly from the hemp plant, therefore are not subject to the same strict regulations – which is why synthetics are often sold as legal substitutes to delta-9 THC.
In recent years, scientists have also developed synthetic versions of both THC and CBD. For example, Marinol® – a synthetic form of THC – is used to treat loss of appetite among AIDS patients as well as nausea associated with chemotherapy. Another FDA approved drug called Cesamet® contains a synthetic version of THC that reduces severe nausea and vomiting often experienced during cancer treatment. Other examples of synthetic cannabinoids include: SpiceGold, K2 Blue, and Kronic.
Are synthetic cannabinoids legal?
The legal status of synthetic cannabinoids is determined by each country’s drug enforcement policies. Some of these substances may be legal in some jurisdictions, while others are completely banned. In a few cases, a substance may be available over the counter from a pharmacy but illegal to sell or possess in another jurisdiction. According to the Drug Enforcement Agency, in the U.S., “43 substances are specifically listed as Schedule I substances under the Controlled Substances Act either through legislation or regulatory action.”
A specific form of synthetic cannabinoids, also known as bath salts have been outlawed and have been associated with deaths and hospitalizations. In the case of bath salts, and other synthetics, they are not cannabis derived. They are only modeled to imitate the natural structure of cannabis molecules. When we say synthetic, we are talking about unnatural substances.
These cannabinoids are created by isolating pure molecules from cannabis plants and enhancing them through minor molecular changes or conversion pathways. For example, to achieve delta-8 THC, scientists convert CBD. This conversion is possible because CBD is an isomer of THC. Isomers are two or more molecules that have the same molecular formula but the atoms are arranged in a different way. Another example of this is the creation of HHC. In order to create HHC, CBD is converted into delta-9 and then hydrogenated.
Essentially, a semi-synthetic cannabinoid is a molecule that starts out as a natural cannabinoid. Scientists use a catalyst to turn the molecule into another naturally occurring cannabinoid. What makes it semi-synthetic is that the process is encouraged, but it still happens naturally in plants. The same thing happens when these cannabinoids are in plants. Scientists identify how to use natural pathways, and when they do create cannabinoids this way it’s called semi-synthetic.
Because many cannabinoids are isomers, it makes it easy to convert them into one another. Scientists simply use natural catalysts to encourage the conversions (CBD to delta-8, CBD to HHC, etc.) The result of the conversion is the exact same compound that is naturally found in the plant. To further clarify, when CBD is used to make HHC, the HHC produced is exactly the same as the HHC found naturally in the seeds and pollen of hemp plants. Yep — the exact same molecule. There are several benefits to semi-synthetics including:
- The natural structure of cannabis is still maintained.
- The naturally occurring compound is molecularly identical to the semi-synthetic compound. The semi-synthetic label only refers to the process involved, but the resulting compound is identical to the natural compound.
- The products do not undergo significant human-processing.
- Chemists are able to increase potency through harnessing and honoring the plant’s inherent medicinal properties.
- Any associated negative effects of natural compounds are able to be reduced or removed entirely through minor molecular alterations.
Synthetic Versus Semi-synthetic
Cannabinoids, whether they be synthetic or semi-synthetic, have been shown to provide a wealth of health benefits. However, there are some clear and notable differences between the two types of cannabinoids we think cannabis users should consider. Here are just a few:
- Semi-synthetics, unlike synthetics, result in identical molecular creation just encouraged in a lab. Semi-synthetic cannabinoids are the same as natural cannabinoids. They are indistinguishable.
- Synthetic cannabinoids are created in a controlled laboratory setting, while semi-synthetics are naturally derived from the organic remains of other plants.
- Studies show synthetic cannabinoids are more likely to cause harmful side effects than semi-synthetic cannabinoids.
The Verdict on Synthetics and Semi-synthetics
The cannabis industry is quickly changing and we want to make sure you’re up-to-date with the latest developments. That’s why we’re making it our mission to educate people about both synthetic and semi-synthetic cannabinoids so they can decide which is right for them. It is clear that synthetics, although made to mimic properties of naturally occurring cannabinoids, are not natural in origin and carry additional threats and side effects. In order to not only utilize but honor and maintain the natural medicinal properties of cannabis, semi-synthetics are our preferred choice. They offer the perfect balance of modern techniques and ancient medicinal cannabis to provide users with a truly optimized experience. Want to try them out for yourself. Check out some of our products here and let us know what you think.