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What are synthetic cannabinoids?

Exploring the World of Synthetic Cannabinoids

Synthetic cannabinoids are chemicals made in a laboratory setting. Unlike phytocannabinoids and endocannabinoids, they are manmade and do not occur in nature. These substances are engineered to target the receptors of the endocannabinoid system to produce specific effects.

Understanding synthetic cannabinoids

Some synthetic cannabinoids exert proven therapeutic actions and work in a similar way to cannabinoids found in the cannabis plant and the human body. For example, researchers developed dronabinol—the active component of Marinol—to target the CB1 receptor much like the phytocannabinoid THC. Nabilone—another synthetic cannabinoid—also mimics the action of THC inside the body. The chemical binds to the CB1 receptor and has been used in therapeutic settings to ease an upset stomach, among other applications.

Although some synthetic cannabinoids display therapeutic potential, others are much more dangerous. Many of them are produced in makeshift laboratories and distributed on the black market under names such as “K2” and “spice”. Unlike THC, which only partially activates cannabinoid receptors, some synthetic cannabinoids fully activate them and are known to be up to 200 times more potent than THC at these sites. This potency can lead to dangerous side effects, including toxicity, hospital admissions, irritation, confusion, and acute kidney injury.

How are synthetic cannabinoids produced?

Scientists carefully create FDA-approved synthetic cannabinoids such as dronabinol in a laboratory setting. The compound contains the THC molecule and is suspended in sesame seed oil, then placed into capsules. However, other synthetic cannabinoids are often crafted in underground laboratories and distributed illegally to willing customers.

This practice originated with organic chemistry professor John William Huffman in 1984 when he and his team synthesized over 400 synthetic cannabinoids during their work at Clemson University, South Carolina. Initially intended as chemical tools to study the endocannabinoid system, some of these molecules found their way onto the German black market in the late 2000s. They are produced in a lab, diluted into a base of acetone, then sprayed onto various forms of dried plant matter to replicate the format of herbal cannabis. This manufacturing process can lead to errors, including exceptionally potent and dangerous drug batches.

Synthetic cannabinoids are here to stay

Hundreds of synthetic cannabinoids exist, with some serving legitimate therapeutic or research purposes, while others are abused and come with dangerous side effects. Naturally occurring cannabinoids are much safer, and emerging research suggests that full-spectrum cannabis extracts may be more effective than single isolated molecules.


[1] Castaneto, M. S., Gorelick, D. A., Desrosiers, N. A., Hartman, R. L., Pirard, S., & Huestis, M. A. (2014). Synthetic cannabinoids: Epidemiology, pharmacodynamics, and clinical implications. Drug and Alcohol Dependence, 144, 12–41. [Source]

[2] Mills, B., Yepes, A., & Nugent, K. (2015). Synthetic Cannabinoids. The American Journal of the Medical Sciences, 350(1), 59–62. [Source]