Synthetic Cannabinoids versus Plant-Derived Products

Crafting synthetic, semi-synthetic, and isomerization of cannabinoids is old hat for chemists.
Natural cannabinoids are derived from cannabis and have molecular structures that are unaltered, while semi-synthetic compounds begin from a natural molecule that’s structure has been altered to improve activity. Synthetics are removed from natural molecules entirely and instead are built from other chemical compounds. And while this technology isn’t new, the debate about their place in the future has recently heated up as both technological advances and economic trends have inspired companies to explore the uses of synthetic cannabinoids more seriously.

The debate is not about any perceived competition with full-spectrum, natural extracts, live resin products, cannabis flower, or any natural-based products; these will continue to be highly in-demand and great product categories. Instead, the question centers around finding a balance between plant-derived products and synthetic, sustainable medical applications for less common cannabinoids. A solution can be found not by replacing natural-based products, but by either enhancing existing products or creating a whole new category of medicines to help people target issues more precisely.

Isolating minor cannabinoids for analytical standards and producing medicines based on those cannabinoids is necessary within the cannabis industry. There is so much we still don’t know, but the means of extracting, distilling, and separating cannabinoids to isolate them from plant material in bulk can be very costly and frankly, ineffective due to the low weight percentage of some minor cannabinoids. Many people believe that bio-catalysis is the future of isolating cannabinoids and reproducing a pure element. As the race for new isolates continues, some companies look as though they’re dialing in the technology to reproduce the chosen cannabinoid, such as hexahydrocannabinol (HHC) and tetrahydrocannabiphorol (THCP), economically. Other strategies include attempting to reproduce what the plant makes naturally with chemical formulations which bind to form the isolated cannabinoid. Chemistry can create the molecules but currently, the costs to produce them are still not economically viable for long-term strategies.

Some companies are transforming lower-cost inputs like cannabidiol (CBD) into delta-8-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), delta-10-THC, and even delta-9-THC isolates. Specifically, they’re using synthesis and separation to produce a new genre of products to compete with mainstream CBD products. One of the most common arguments against synthetic cannabinoids is the sustainability of these cannabinoids compared to high-THC products extracted from cannabis. While the industry has been moving steadily to reduce electrical usage and water usage, producing even the highest-quality plants still negatively impacts the environment. There are problems throughout the supply chain, ranging from waste to pesticide runoffs and excessive plastic consumption. As time goes on, there will be more changes that will benefit the environment. Semi-synthetic cannabinoids require less rigorous growing conditions and requirements, and the transformation yields a very comparable and purified isolated cannabinoid or mix.

There is increasing research and development money going into sustainable methods to produce cannabinoids like tetrahydrocannabivarin (THCV), THC-O-acetate, THCP, cannabigerol (CBG), cannabinol (CBN), delta-8-THC, delta-9-THC, delta-10-THC, and over 100 others. We’re already witnessing the commercialization of delta-8-THC and newer delta-9-THC distillates among the less regulated hemp/CBD makers to compete with the highly regulated THC/Delta-9 producers. Although regulation seems certain on the less regulated commercial levels, scientists are already studying the efficacy of synthetic cannabinoids and determining other medical uses for them due to the purity of the molecules. CBD to CBN conversion is more cost-efficient than the extraction and combination of THC plus CBN, and in the regulated recreational cannabis market, CBD to CBN is becoming a serious product category for sleep aids. This is spurring scientists to want to create CBD to CBN medicines to compete on the prescription level. Plus, CBG-rich plants are also being substituted for use in the conversion of semi-synthetic cannabinoids to be an additive to existing products.

In the U.S. and Canada, the recreational and commercial cannabis markets are getting more creative and innovative. Major companies are starting to use semi-synthetic cannabinoids more often. Following the GW Pharmaceutical $7 billion buyout, there is an incredible amount of money pouring into the biotech and medical area to develop drugs that mainstream doctors can prescribe (these formulations require FDA-approved, isolated molecules to be tested but also can be produced cost-efficiently). Full-spectrum herbal extract medicines will dominate the recreational and simplified herbal-medical world, but for doctors and the overall pharmaceutical realm, synthetic and semi-synthetic cannabinoids will be the standard that must be followed. Furthermore, the research at that level will continue driving innovations in the recreational world.

About the author

Michael Sassano, Somai Pharmaceutical

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