Synthetic Cannabinoids – History and Controversy

Synthetic cannabinoids are part of a group of drugs called new psychoactive substances (NPS). They bind to the same receptors in body cells as natural cannabinoids, and the strongest binding affinity is the one to the CB1 receptor, the same receptor that enables the feeling of euphoria that would occur with consuming natural THC as a product of marijuana plant. Not only that, but synthetic cannabinoids make this feeling of ‘high’ even more intensive than natural products.

Legal Limitations and Health Effects

Because of the legal limitations on natural products and the low cost of production of these ‘designer drugs’, synthetic cannabinoids became popular in the 2000s. However, after numerous deaths reported in recent years, there is a rising awareness about risks involved with producing, selling and consuming these substances. A 2015 study published by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows adverse health effects connected to consuming synthetical cannabinoids. Those are agitation (35,3%), tachycardia (29%), drowsiness and lethargy (26,3%), vomiting (16,4%) and confusion (4,2%). Death was reported in 0,5% of cases. Also, there is a record of consumers developing unexplained acute kidney injury after inhaling synthetic cannabinoids. This was attributed to XLR-11, a fluorinated synthetic cannabinoid found in the products consumed by those patients.

On another account, the emergency department in Brunswick, Georgia, reported 22 patients aged 16-57, who, besides tachycardia, vomiting and confusion, experienced hyperglycemia (59%), hypokalemia (41%), acidosis (32%), aggression (32%), somnolence/unresponsiveness (32%) and seizures (14%). Complications included pneumonia, rhabdomyolysis and myocardial infarction. This was attributed to synthetic cannabinoid ADB-PINACA. In an outbreak in Colorado, the list was continued with ADBICA as a possible contributor to the illness.

It’s not clear if these health effects are connected directly to synthetic cannabinoids themselves, their dosage or are they a result of their mixture with other compounds, such as rat poison in some cases, as it’s apparent it lifts the ‘high’ even further up. All in all, there is a high health risk established with the consumption of synthetic cannabinoids in numerous studies.

Growing Interest in Natural CBD

With a growing interest in CBD and its use in the medical industry, some companies opt for synthetic CBD as a cheaper solution to natural CBD derived from the hemp plant. One of such companies is Biotii Technologies Corp, a Boston based biotech company that seeks into producing large quantities of cannabinoids from sugars using biosynthetic engineering. In April 2019, a license used to control the medical developments of CBD called patent 507 was lifted, which means there could be many of these high flyers in the upcoming future with various production methods.

However, the experts in the field of botanical medicine warn that no synthetic cannabinoid can ever compare to those derived naturally since the body needs ‘wholemeal’, and not a single substance. There are over 100 cannabinoids in the hemp plant, and it’s believed they interact and fulfill each other’s role, with help from our own, bodily produced endocannabinoids. For that reason, some believe that only full-spectrum CBD products have an optimum effect on our health and well-being.

Reviewed by Sasha Bajilo, founder of ILESOL Pharmaceuticals, an industrial scale producer of CBD products and formulations. Expert on Hemp/Cannabis policy, member of the Croatian Ministry of Health regulatory commission for medical cannabis.