Understanding Cannabis: Natural Vs. Synthetic Cannabinoids
Left to its own devices, cannabis will flourish in a variety of environments. This is mostly the result of its evolution over thousands of years, and its capabilities as a dioecious species. However, thanks to sophisticated scientific processes, we are now seeing the natural compounds contained within cannabis being synthesised and produced artificially in a lab.
Without the need for an optimal growing environment, and with the ability to replicate the exact compounds you want, a question is often asked—which presents a better investment opportunity, companies that specialise in synthetic, or natural cannabinoids?
Before exploring the intricacies of synthetic versus natural, it is worth recapping on why cannabinoids have become so important. Inside all species of cannabis and hemp are chemical compounds called cannabinoids. Once consumed, cannabinoids interact with the body’s endogenous cannabinoid system, or endocannabinoid system (ECS), where they trigger a vast range of biological reactions.
Natural cannabinoids like CBD have shown the ability to ease anxiety, reduce inflammation and more, while THC can induce feelings of hunger and help people get to sleep. The difficulty with cannabis is there are dozens of cannabinoids, and they don’t all exist at the same time. If you want to isolate and study a particular compound, it can prove incredibly difficult. Moreover, before you’ve even started extracting cannabinoids, you need to actually grow a cannabis plant. This process is not only labour-intensive, but takes time.
Following several breakthroughs in the therapeutic potential of cannabinoids, scientists have been looking for ways to improve their efficacy and bypass the difficulties of extraction. Synthetic cannabinoids represent an advancement in this process. Certain cannabinoids can now be synthesised in a lab, without the need to cultivate a cannabis plant.
The body is well equipped to deal with cannabinoids, and even an influx produces relatively mild side effects. There is currently no recorded evidence of lethal overdose on cannabis, for the very reason that the body is designed to be able to process and break down cannabinoids.
However, it isn't just cannabinoids that make up the chemical structure of cannabis. Terpenes, flavonoids, and smaller molecules all work together to support the potential medical benefit that cannabis can provide. Even cannabis plants bred for the greatest concentration of THC rarely exceed 30%. If you want a highly concentrated therapy using only particular cannabinoids, it can be difficult to achieve naturally.
Synthetic cannabinoids are designed to aggressively target specific cannabinoid receptors, and this prevents the body from being able to process them in the same way it does natural cannabinoids. Although they are likely to have significant side effects, they are also more concentrated and allow for a potentially greater scope of medical benefit.
The two most prominent examples of synthetic cannabinoids produced for the medical market are Sativex and Epidiolex. Sativex was the first synthetic cannabinoid treatment to gain approval in any country, and is used to help treat multiple sclerosis. Epidiolex is used to treat seizures associated with Dravet syndrome and Lennox-Gastaut syndrome, two severe types of epilepsy that can result in hundreds of seizures a day.
Previous treatments for these conditions using traditional pharmaceuticals resulted in extreme side effects or were proven ineffective. Synthetic cannabinoids take the basic principle of cannabinoids and increases their effects far beyond what would be capable through natural means. There may still be side effects as a result of synthetic cannabinoid treatments, but even these have been shown themselves to be less severe, and most importantly, less addictive than certain pharmaceutical alternatives.
Development of synthetic cannabinoids takes extensive research, preclinical trials, government approval, and highly sophisticated equipment. It is not uncommon to see pharmaceutical companies involved in cannabinoid treatments partner with medical bodies or research departments at Universities. This can help secure essential funding via grants, and allows companies to harness the experience and intellect of leading researchers and scientists.
One company at the forefront of cannabinoid-based treatments is GW Pharmaceuticals. The Britain-based company was the first to develop and patent both Sativex and Epidiolex. They continue to fund several preclinical trials as they look to increase the scope and potential of synthetic cannabinoid-based treatments.
Back to the original question of which presents a better investment opportunity; the answer ultimately comes down to the needs of the market. Traditionally grown cannabis has developed a firm foothold in the medical market. A lack of severe side effects and ease of access have driven its prominence among virtually all demographics. Although it is difficult and time-consuming to grow, cannabis is easier and cheaper than the requirements of producing synthetic cannabinoids.
The caveat is that synthetic cannabinoids represent an opportunity to deliver more conclusive results. Researchers can pinpoint a specific dose and identify how to replicate that on a larger scale. There is no need to factor in the variables associated with growing a complex organism like cannabis. A poor harvest could not only impact the availability of a particular medication, but also its efficacy.
There are distinct advantages to both natural and synthetic cannabinoids, but be aware that synthetic compounds are almost exclusively aimed at medical markets. Approved synthetic medicines are still few and far between, but there is no denying the beneficial impact they are having on people’s lives.