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What’s the Deal with Synthetic Cannabinoids?

synthetic cannabinoids
Written by Sarah Friedman
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We’re told all the time to fear synthetic cannabinoids, and to stay away from products that might use them. But are they really that dangerous? And aren’t most approved medical cannabis treatments still made from them?

According to drugabuse.org, “Synthetic cannabinoids are human-made mind-altering chemicals that are either sprayed on dried, shredded plant material so they can be smoked or sold as liquids to be vaporized and inhaled in e-cigarettes and other devices. These products are also known as herbal or liquid incense. These chemicals are called cannabinoids because they are similar to chemicals found in the marijuana plant.”

This, of course, is a terrible explanation, but about the best one that’s out there. Notice how it makes no mention of synthetic cannabinoids that are widely sold for medicinal purposes. In fact, if you just read this, you might not know that synthetic cannabinoids are actually highly promoted.

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Legal vs illegal

When looking at synthetic cannabinoids, there are two different types to look at. The first group is considered illegal because its made up of compounds that haven’t been regulated and are part of the cannabis black market. The other is considered legal because it is comprised of compounds made in labs by pharmaceutical companies and approved by a government regulator. Both are synthetics of the very same thing, yet the attitude between them is worlds apart. And possibly the risks, but this is highly unclear.

When a plant is put through processing that structurally changes it, it becomes a different substance, and is then legally able to be patented as it is no longer the plant in its original form. It’s a cheap way to move something from plant medicine where it cannot be patented, to pharmaceutical medicine where it can be, generally under the explanation of providing people with the best medicine possible, but often highlighting a previously untapped revenue source, or redirecting one that exists into another place.

This is an important aspect to the pharmaceutical industry that most people are unaware of – even doctors in the field, and it factors in very strongly when dealing with plants like cannabis. So, I’ll make it very clear. A plant in its natural form cannot be patented. Only a different, created version, or a synthetic can be patented. Does that maybe shed some light on why people are constantly told it’s dangerous to smoke marijuana while pharmaceutical companies are handing out prescriptions for Marinol?

What is Marinol?

I could use one of several legal synthetic cannabinoid drugs to make this point, but Marinol is a well known one. And it’s a synthetic. As in, a fake cannabinoid, made in a lab, that works differently, and maybe more potently, than the actual plant. In fact, it’s quite possible that the biggest different between Marinol and the varied synthetic cannabinoids under the name of K2, is who makes money from it.

Real Cannabis vs Synthetic Marinol – Which One is Better?

For example, if you look up ‘K2’ on the internet, you’ll see a lot of government sites telling you not to use it, but you won’t find anything that draws a difference between FDA-approved synthetic cannabinoids and non-FDA approved synthetic cannabinoids. In fact, most of the time, if you look up ‘synthetic cannabinoids’, all you’ll see is the dangers of the illicit ones, with no mention to the fact that they are being sold legally every day.

In 2018, a law came out in Illinois to ensure that the only synthetic cannabinoids sold were government approved. Which actually makes the statement that synthetic cannabinoids are totally fine, as long as the government says so. Much like a lot of regulation, it was a law that seemed to be designed to close a loophole where there was lost revenue for the government.

When dealing with any kind of synthetic, there is reason for worry, especially if the supply chain is shrouded in secrecy. Dangerous chemicals could be added, or it could produce effects that are unexpected and different from the original plant. Indeed testing is needed, and with so many ways to create synthetics, a way to gauge their effects and regulate them effectively. And this information should be made readily available.

If synthetics are bad, why is Marinol used?

Truth is, there isn’t much saying Marinol is any better than reports of K2 injuries. This article from June of 2020 talks about how since 2015 there have been about 20 deaths due to synthetic cannabinoids. The number is, of course, downright silly when considering that over 30,000 died from opiates in 2018 in the US alone, and those are readily prescribed every day. It starts to make complaints about non-approved synthetic cannabinoids vs approved synthetic cannabinoids kind of moot, as at its worst, synthetic cannabinoids don’t seem to have the power of other drugs, and that can be easily seen in death tolls.

If you look up deaths from synthetic cannabinoids, you’ll see stories, no doubt, but not in the same vein as opiates, or benzodiazepines, or any number of other classes of pharmaceuticals that are prescribed like water. And when looking at the safety of the actual plant, cannabis, the idea of even using a synthetic becomes confusing and silly.

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This was put together by ProCon.org to try to establish the level of danger for using marijuana vs federally approved drugs. You can see reports of drug deaths with the primary drug given for the overdose as well as any secondary drugs that might factor in. Cannabis has 0 deaths associated with it as the primary cause, it is the only drug on the list that has 0. On the other hand, Marinol, which is synthetic cannabis, is in the category of ‘Anti-emetics’ which credits almost 200 deaths, as well as showing up under the ‘FDA approved’ category with four deaths of its own. That’s a lot compared to nothing.

The report authors explain how the information was compiled for comparison, but make the statement “ProCon.org attempted to find the total number of users of each of these drugs by contacting the FDA, pharmaceutical trade organizations, and the actual drug manufacturers. We either did not receive a response or were told the information was proprietary or otherwise unavailable.” The information comes from the US Food and Drug Administration made under a Freedom of Information Act request. Funny that official government offices and professional organizations didn’t think people having this information verified was important.

The even deeper truth to this is that the low death rate (and it is) doesn’t make synthetics a good option, but that’s only because very few synthetics will ever be better than an actual plant, which is made of parts that work together synergistically. However, as we went over before, a regular plant – like cannabis – cannot be patented, which means a pharmaceutical company cannot sell it as medicine, and the government cannot tax it for revenue.

What it does mean, is that there is a massive discrepancy over how safety is spoken about with regards to synthetic cannabinoids, with very little consistency therein. If they’re all bad, then so are the legal ones, and if they aren’t all bad, then the ones being used illicitly might be perfectly safe. Does this mean that picking up a cheap product likely made of a synthetic is a good idea? No! Of course not! It never is! But it doesn’t say much for getting it prescribed from your doctor either.

What’s the point?

If a synthetic cannabinoid and a real cannabinoid do the same thing, why use synthetics at all if the plant is significantly safer? Isn’t that what the entire pharmaceutical industry is based on? Making medications that are synthetics of plants since the original can’t be patented? And having them often be inferior or more dangerous than the original?

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Kind of ironic that we rely entirely on an industry that is fundamentally based in synthetics, yet the second they’re no longer useful to push, or its not convenient, or there’s a conflict in where the money flows, we’re told not to use them by the very same people who produce them. In this case, we don’t even get the respect of a logical argument. We get told to use the synthetics on one end, and to stay away from them on the other.

Sure, when getting into any mass market where there’s an ability to bastardize it (which is pretty much anything), there needs to be a way to establish high quality vs low quality, dangerous ingredients vs non-dangerous ingredients, safe vs not safe production practices. One of the most important aspects to this is making sure that the approved version – the better version – really is, and not just some marketing ploy. After all, this whole article is about whether synthetic cannabinoids of any kind are safe, and its not even a necessary argument to worry about since there’s an actual plant that can safely be used.

Conclusion

The best part about the argument over synthetics is that it doesn’t need to take place at all. We have access to the original plant, in tons of different forms, which grows pretty easily in most places, and can provide the medical benefits in a more healthy way than any synthetic alternative. It’s literally one of the most useless arguments there is. In fact, rather than fighting over whether synthetic cannabinoids are safe or not, we should be pushing to have the whole plant legalized so that there is good access to all its natural medicinal benefits to anyone who needs them.

Thanks for stopping by CBD TESTERS, your hub for all things cannabis-related. Stop by regularly and make sure to subscribe to the Medical Cannabis Weekly Newsletter to keep up-to-date on all the most interesting industry topics.

About the author

Sarah Friedman

I am a US born writer, travelling the world and doing the digital nomad thing.

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