Synthetic Cannabinoid Origins

Cannabinoids are a diverse class of chemical compounds that have the ability to stimulate the endocannabinoid system. The attention of researchers and consumers typically focuses on phytocannabinoids—cannabinoids produced by the cannabis plant—and endocannabinoids—endogenous cannabinoids produced by our bodies that act as neurotransmitters.

But cannabinoids can also be made in the lab. Known as synthetic cannabinoids, researchers began developing this class of compounds using chemical synthesis as early as the 1940s so they could better understand the physiological effects of cannabis.

From Research to Recreation

Synthetic cannabinoid research continued into the 1990s and early 2000s. Around the same time, scientific journals began publishing research articles online, giving rogue chemists access to the chemical structures of synthetic cannabinoids.

In January 2005, a group of U.S. researchers published a paper describing, among other compounds, the synthetic cannabinoid JWH-018. The compound bears the initials of the paper’s lead author, John W. Huffman.

That same year, herbal products began cropping up for sale online and in stores in Europe and the U.S. claiming they contained natural and legal psychoactive compounds that mimicked the effects of cannabis. Some even included JWH-018 as an active ingredient on the product label.

Although these herbal products were sold under different names, K2 and Spice were popular iterations. They consisted of dried plant material, similar in appearance to dried cannabis flower, that had been sprayed with a synthetic cannabinoid formulation.

Poor Quality Control

Almost as soon as these products appeared, people began turning up at emergency rooms experiencing toxic reactions. A large part of the problem is that synthetic cannabinoid-laced products are unregulated. As a result, there is little to no quality control for potency which can vary from batch to batch.

Additionally, synthetic cannabinoids can be very different from naturally occurring phytocannabinoids. For example, JWH-018 is a full CB1 receptor agonist. This means it binds to CB1 receptors much more strongly than THC and is several times more potent. 3 mg of JWH-018 may have the same effect as 15 mg of THC.

Testing Increases Safety

All of these factors combine to increase the risk of overdose for synthetic cannabinoid users. This is in stark contrast to cannabis products. While cannabis flower potency has steadily increased over the last several decades, there appears to be a natural limit placed on the concentration of phytocannabinoids that the cannabis plant can produce.

And now that cannabis is legal and highly regulated in certain states, it’s perhaps more safe than ever to consume. In California, cannabis products must undergo comprehensive quality control testing. This verifies the potency of every cannabis product batch so that consumers know exactly how much THC and CBD they’re getting in each dose.