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Synthetic Cannabinoids

Synthetic versions of both THC and CBD have been developed. THC has been modified to create synthetic analog drugs like HU-210, which is many times more potent an agonist (chemical activator) of the CB1 receptor and is used for scientific research. According to Martin Lee, such potent drugs “have been very useful experimentally because they drive the receptor more intensely than do THC or the endocannabinoids. While this property (being a ‘high-efficacy full agonist’) can create more readily observable results when compared to a partial agonist like THC, such experiments are frequently and inaccurately publicized as revealing a specific effect of marijuana.”

In the case of THC, synthetically derived single-molecule pharmaceuticals have been available for the consumer market since 2004. THC-only medicines like Marinol (dronabinol) are pharmaceuticals developed to target specific ailments, like cancer-related nausea. Marinol is synthetically derived THC that is suspended in sesame seed oil, and according to Dr. Ethan Russo, people often discontinue it due to negative side effects. Russo believes this is at least in part because of the absence of other cannabinoids, as reported by Scientific American in 2017. “They get anxious, dysphoric, [and] scattered,” he says. “It interferes with their ability to function.”

Synthetic versions of CBD also exist and are currently used in scientific studies with animal test subjects. There are no FDA-approved single molecule CBD pharmaceuticals available to the consumer market, yet. The data from these animal studies is often hard to compare with an equivalent dose from a CBD-rich extract in humans, meaning our clinical understanding of CBD is still in its infancy. But generally speaking, synthetic cannabinoids are viewed with skepticism by practitioners and patients alike.

As a consumer, one thing to be aware of is that dangerous synthetic and/or counterfeit CBD products have found their way onto the market. At least 52 people in Utah were sickened by these products between October 2017 and January 2018, according to a report released by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). Of these 52 people who became ill, 31 ended up in the emergency room with symptoms like altered mental status, seizures, confusion, loss of consciousness, and hallucinations. Brands such as Yolo CBD Oil were being sold as pure CBD, and purchased through smoking and head shops. This underscores the need for consumers to vet their CBD products with lab test results.