What are synthetic and phytocannabinoids and how are they different?

Can we agree, cannabis nomenclature should stay within its field — to an extent? The definitions of natural and synthetic are definitive across Pharmacol literature, but cannabis tends to straddle the food industry and flamboyant definitions. Cannabinoids have definitive characteristics, but the origins of phytocannabinoids have become far too ambiguous to define as “natural” or “synthetic.” So, how should we define these substances in a way that continues to respect traditions, and why does it matter?

Let’s start an open discussion since the definition of these compounds is morally ambiguous. Yet, the way we define them as a whole community will be quantitatively defined in the history books since this language affects everyone – from regulators to consumers and clinicians to patients.

Cannabinoids have categories

Cannabinoid” is an umbrella category that defines any molecule that acts on the endogenous cannabinoid system. This system includes, but is not limited to, the receptors CB1, CB2, and GPR55. THC falls under the subclass of exogenous phytocannabinoids because the cannabinoid is plant-derived. However, endocannabinoids act on specific cannabinoid receptors but are naturally present (endogenously) within all vertebrae.

It is not an endocannabinoid if it does not exist within us or trigger specific receptors. A lab-made synthetic endocannabinoid, identical to a molecule found inside a mammal, becomes a synthesized endocannabinoid. On a technical note, the two molecules must be identical on every level; every bond must be in the same position. A single shift in one double-bond classifies a molecule as a different compound, and this could drastically alter a cannabinoid’s effect on the body.

The intention behind these synthetics is to evolve our understanding of the endocannabinoid system. One day, cannabis’s therapeutic full-spectrum will be as common knowledge to every medical doctor as ibuprofen. For now, synthetic renditions of any endogenous ligand are optimal for research purposes and separate from phytocannabinoids.

Phytocannabinoids made without cannabis have begun to appear more commonly on the market. Whereas, D10-THC and THCo are both synthetic.

Phytocannabinoids are exogenous

An exogenous cannabinoid is any cannabimimetic molecule produced outside (independently and externally) of all vertebrae. This definition applies to either synthetic molecules and phytocannabinoids. Generally, if the molecule is in a plant, it is not a synthetic cannabinoid.

Orange peels can make pure THC in more ways than three. In fact, cannabis, a mixture of chemicals, or even yeast can be sources for CBD, THC, and other ‘exogenous’ cannabinoids — This raises a question. We can assume THC derived from a non-cannabis plant is a synthesized phytocannabinoid. If we can agree on that, what about cannabinoids fermented from yeast since phyto relates to a plant?

Dr. Shulgin's phytocannabinoids were organic not synthetic.
Dr. Alexander Shulgin, the God Father of many psychedelics, once synthesized THC from rock scabs and orange peels.

Are those phytocannabinoids synthetic, fermented, or made from fresh-squeezed orange peels?

There is no difference between cannabis or orange peels in the context of pharmacology. Medical texts only care if the compound does exist in nature and that its molecular structure is identical. Although, the cannabinoid’s source (whether biosynthetic, semisynthetic or purely synthetic) matters to pharmacognosy and chemistry. Moreover, we must not forget about the process and tradition in the cannabis market.

So, can we agree that a cannabis industry without dedicated nomenclature possesses a few problems? THC, CBD, CBDV, and any other minor cannabinoid can be derived from a non-cannabis source. Molecules derived from fermentation and organic synthesis remain under the label of phytocannabinoids, while the secret of the synthetic process remains hidden. Has a cloak of marketing lingo draped itself around the constituents that build the cannabis (or hemp) plant?

This lab result appeared in an Instagram story advertised as “D9 on the low”. The person behind the account announced that their D9-THC is ‘from CBD’ from commercial hemp in a direct message.

For example, a producer will admit they derived D9-THC from CBD isolate on the low. But, will producers tell their consumers that the real source of their CBD isolate is neither cannabis nor hemp? In reality, THC is no longer exclusive to cannabis and hemp. So, stay tuned for a story on non-cannabis-derived organic cannabinoids and the impact they might have on hemp farmers.

Let us know in the comments how you define Delta-8 THC, synthetic, and other phytocannabinoids. Also, learn how to make THCp from orange terps with Professor Maio before we discuss the impact synthesized THC will have on farmers and traditions.