What are cannabinoids? Where can cannabinoids be found?

What are cannabinoids? Where can cannabinoids be found?

This is an article created by Fundacion CANNA, a Spanish non-profit organization that carries out studies and conducts research on Cannabis and its active compounds. Its main focus is on Cannabis plants and their active compounds, related studies and scientific research, especially regarding its effects on the human body and mind and regarding Cannabis use and its derivatives. Fundación CANNA has it’s own laboratory where different kind of tests are performed.
The word cannabinoids refers to every chemical substance, regardless its origin or structure, that joins the cannabinoid receptors of the body and brain and that have similar effects to those produced by the plant Cannabis Sativa L. We know it is a large and varied group of substances that can be classified in several ways, but the most useful way to understand the cannabinoid diversity is the following:


Phytocannabinoids make reference to the kinds of compounds characterised by 21 carbon atoms which only show in nature in the plant Cannabis Sativa L. Around 70 phytocannabinoids have already been found, including their acidic and neutral forms, their analogous and other transformation products. The plant is just able to synthesise the phytocannabinoids directly in their non-psychoactive forms. Therefore, the main phytocannabinoids present in fresh plant material are Δ9-THCA, CBDA, CBGA y CBCA. However, the carboxyl group is not very stable and it is easily lost as CO2 under the influence of heat or light, which causes the transformation in the active neutral forms. The acidic phytocannabinoids suffer partial decarboxylation in the drying and curing process of buds; subsequently, acidic phytocannabinoids and some of their active neutral forms (Δ9-THC, CBD, CBG y CBC) are mainly found in the plant dry material. A large drying process of the plant material would generate the reduction of acidic phytocannabinoids and the increase of the neutral ones. When the plant is smoked or cooked every acidic cannabinoid suffers decarboxylation in its neutral form due to the influence of heat.

The method normally used in the decarboxylation of small quantities of Cannabis plant material (i.e. 20 grams) consists of placing it in an oven at 120 ºC for a minimum period of 20 minutes. Cooking the Cannabis in butter or oil will also initiate the process for as long as necessary. It is interesting that the most studied phytocannabinoid, Δ9-THC, in its neutral form is the main one responsible for the psychoactive effects caused by Cannabis intake, while it does not show psychoactive activity in its acidic form Δ9-THCA.


Endocannabinoids are produced by almost every organism in the animal kingdom. They are natural endogenous ligands produced by human and animal organisms that join the cannabinoid receptors. Both endocannabinoids and cannabinoid receptors form the endocannabinoid system, which is involved in a large variety of physiological processes, such as the control of the neurotransmitters release, the pain perception and the cardiovascular, gastrointestinal and liver functions. The two main endocannabinoids found are the anandamide (N-arachidonoylethanolamine or ANA) and 2-arachidonoylglycerol (2-AG). Endocannabinoids are the molecules that act as natural key for the main cannabinoid receptors CB1 and CB2 and cause their activation and subsequent action. CB1 is mainly located in the central nervous system and it is responsible for the effects mediated by neuronal processes and psychoactive 'secondary' effects. CB2 is mainly located in the immune system and it is responsible for the immunomodulatory effects. CB2 receptors have been recently discovered in the central nervous system, the microglial cells and they seem to be in certain neurons as well. However, it remains a quite controversial and debated issue.

Synthetic cannabinoids

The main difference between phytocannabinoids, endocannabinoids and synthetic cannabinoids is that the latter are fully synthetic and created in the laboratory. An example of it would be dronabinol (Δ9-THC synthetic), which is the active compound of MARINOL®, a medicine that comes in capsules and has been consumed in the US since 1985 to prevent nausea, vomiting, loss of appetite and loss of weight. Another example would be nabilone, that is the active substance of CESAMET®, a medicine approved for the nausea and vomiting control caused by cancer chemotherapy. Both medicinal products have been approved for these purposes in the US, United Kingdom, Switzerland, Canada and Spain. More recently, some selective cannabinoids for CB1 receptor, such as JHW-018 y JHW-073, have been used as psychoactive ingredients in smart drugs marketed as imitations of Cannabis effects. One of the names used for these drugs is “Spice”. There is not much information about the effects of synthetic cannabinoids in humans, although some of them have already shown to cause more distress and panic than phytocannabinoids. Synthetic cannabinoids have been designed as research tools for cannabinoid scientific studies, however, they have never shown to be reliable for human consumption in clinical testing. In theory, they should have never left the laboratory where they where designed and synthesised.

What part of the plant are phytocannabinoids produced in?

It has been largely accepted that phytocannabinoids are mainly or fully synthesised and stored in small structures called glandular trichomes. Trichomes are present in most of the aerial surfaces of the plant. These structures together with cannabinoids are also found in most of terpenes (monoterpenes and sesquiterpenes), which provide each species with a different aroma, depending on their number and combination. This is the reason why it can be said that trichomes are the most interesting part of Cannabis for pharmacognosy experts.

Read more about phytocannabinoids, how they are being produced and an explanation about the main non-psychoactive phytocannabinoids

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