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Classifying Cannabinoids

CBCA is found in higher concentrations in young plants, which decreases with maturity. Cannabis can affect people in many different ways. The diverse and sometime contradictory effects can be traced to the many chemical compounds found in it. We know the effects of cannabis are largely determined by the unique combinations of cannabinoids, terpenes, flavonoids, and other secondary metabolites found in the plant. This is known as the Entourage effect and was popularized by Dr. Ethan Russo.

The term cannabinoids was originally used to describe chemical compounds found in cannabis. However, it now covers all naturally occurring or synthetic compounds that resemble the shape of cannabinoids found in plants or dock in the same receptors. We now call naturally occurring cannabinoids Phytocannabinoids. Synthetic cannabinoids are man-made, but having a similar shape allows these compounds to dock with the same receptors in our bodies as phytocannabinoids.

The media will often use the terms synthetic cannabinoids and synthetic cannabis interchangeably. It should be clear that even though synthetic cannabinoids use the same neural pathways and have similar shapes, they are not the same as phytocannabinoids. Synthetic cannabinoids may resemble cannabis in a lab setting but the effects are very different.

The Different Forms of Phytocannabinoids

Our bodies produce cannabinoids, known as Endocannabinoids. They play a key role in the function of the human endocannabinoid system. Two major endocannabinoids are Anandamide (AEA) and 2-Arachidonoyl glycerol (2-AG).

When learning about the effects of phytocannabinoids it is important to understand that although current research shows their potential, it is limited and more studies are required before any robust claims can be made. The following effects have been found in research studies conducted from 1980-2015.

It is also worthy to note that phytocannabinoids often exist in two different forms, acidic and neutral, because they have different effects. For example, tetrahydrocannabinolic acid (THCA) is the acidic form of Δ9-tetrahydrocannabinol (Δ9-THC). While Δ9-THC does have a euphoric effect, THCA does not. If someone were to ingest the acidic form, they may be disappointed if they expected a Δ9-THC-like effect. Phytocannabinoids are generally found in their acidic form in cannabis.

Cannabigerolic acid (CBGA) is the precursor to Δ9-THCA, CBDA, and CBCA. Its neutral form is known as Cannabigerol (CBG). Cannabis plants naturally produce CBGA and then enzymes break it down into either Δ9-THCA, CBDA, or CBCA, depending on which enzyme is acting upon it. Italian researchers have shown that CBG has strong anti-inflammatory potential and may help patients with Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD). CBG can reduce pressure in the eyes by increasing fluid drainage, which may be helpful when treating glaucoma. Recent studies done on mice showed CBG may protect neurons affected by Huntington’s Disease and can inhibit the growth of colorectal cancer. Other research found that CBG may also be able to help people suffering from certain bladder conditions.

Cannabis plants naturally produce CBGA and then enzymes break it down.

The main phytocannabinoid in cannabis is Δ9–TetraHydroCannabinolic Acid (Δ9-THCA). Δ9-THCA has shown anti-cancer, anti-inflammatory, and antispasmodic properties. The neutral form of Δ9-THCA is Δ9-TetraHydroCannabinol (Δ9-THC) and is largely responsible for the euphoric effects of cannabis. Users quickly convert Δ9-THCA to Δ9-THC when they inhale heated cannabis. Δ9-THC affects the parts of the brain responsible for mood, motor coordination, autonomic function, memory, learning, sensation, cognition, emotional reactions, feeding and other homeostatic processes. In various research studies THC has shown potential in treating Alzheimer’s disease, brain injury, fibromyalgia, glaucoma, IBD or Crohn’s disease, multiple sclerosis, pain and inflammation, sleep apnea, PTSD, insomnia, appetite loss, migraines and ADHD. Humans metabolize Δ9-THC into 11-Hydroxy-Δ9-THC, which has different effects on the human body. Some tests have shown 11-Hydroxy-Δ9-THC is three to seven times more potent than Δ9-THC. This is why ingesting cannabis produces an experience very different than inhaling cannabis.

A Non-Intoxicating Cannabinoid

Cannabidiolic Acid (CBDA) is a non-intoxicating cannabinoid found in the cannabis plant. CBDA’s neutral form is known as cannabidiol (CBD). Although high amounts of CBD are found in hemp, strains with much higher CBD concentrations are becoming more common. Many people have started using CBD for its alleged health benefits. CBDA has shown anti-cancer and anti-inflammatory properties and CBD can be used to treat a range of anxiety disorders like generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, social anxiety disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Unlike Δ9-THC, CBD does not bond well with CB receptors and its actions are more indirect in nature. CBD even counteracts the effects of Δ9-THC by increasing levels of anandamide, which blocks Δ9-THC from binding with CB receptors. CBD also lessens the anxiogenic (anxiety-inducing) and psychotropic effects of Δ9-THC. In addition to working on the endocannabinoid system, CBD also works on other receptors found in the human body and has been implicated in a range of functions including anxiety, addiction, appetite, sleep, pain perception, nausea, body temperature, inflammation and vomiting. CBD also blocks the GPR55 receptor and, in doing so, can stop the spread of certain cancers as well as osteoporosis.

CBCA is found in higher concentrations in young plants, which decreases with maturity.

Cannabichromenic acid (CBCA) is the third cannabinoid created by enzymes breaking down CBGA and is generally found in smaller quantities than the other two in harvested flower. CBCA is found in higher concentrations in young plants, which decreases with maturity. CBCA has anti-fungal and anti-inflammatory properties. The neutral form of CBCA, Cannabichromene (CBC) binds with receptors that are linked to pain perception and also increase levels of endocannabinoids like anandamide. CBC has shown potential in treating acne, diarrhea, inflammation of the gastrointestinal tract, swelling, pain, depression, and as an anti-bacterial and anti-fungal agent. One of CBC’s most interesting benefits is that it may actually promote the development of brain cells.

How is CBN Created?

Unlike phytocannabinoids, cannabinol (CBN) is not created from CBGA. Rather, CBN is created by the oxidation of Δ9-THC. As Δ9-THC ages, it turns into CBN. Older samples of cannabis that have not been stored properly will have higher amounts of CBN. Like CBD and CBC, CBN interacts with other immune cells to regulate endocannabinoids. CBN has shown antibacterial, anticonvulsant, and anti-inflammatory properties. CBN has also been shown to slow the growth of a certain type of lung cancer. CBN can decrease sensations of pain and has a vasorelaxant effect that can be useful in treating glaucoma. CBN may even be able to heal bones by recruiting stem cells.

As more research is conducted, we consistently learn more about the many different cannabinoids and how they interact. The true potential of these compounds is actualized by using them together and not in isolation.

Editor’s Note: The potential effects described in this article are all based on research studies. Cannabis Retailer supports the need for a greater understanding of the effects of cannabis achieved through credible scientific study, but in no way recommends that licensed cannabis store owners or their employees direct customers to specific products based on their purported medical effects.

Paul Dhillon is the President of Cultivated Solutions, which addresses the training and support services of the cannabis industry, develops talent, and is an advocate of demystifying and destigmatizing cannabis through credible research.