Cannabinoids: acid form versus non—acid form
Cannabinoids present in hemp plants occur mainly in their acidic form. This means that an acid group is attached to each cannabinoid molecule. The plants naturally synthesize them this way. Inside living plants or well preserved dried material, usually more than 90 % of the cannabinoids are in their acid form.
Cannabinoids can undergo a reaction called decarboxylation, where they lose this acid group. This reaction occurs slowly with time, but can be dramatically accelerated by heat. This is for instance what happens when a cannabis product is smoked, or cooked for a sufficient time.
The regulated Δ9-THC molecule has been demonstrated to be more active in its non-acidic form (REF). The regulations, thus, implies determining and expressing the total cannabinoids content in hemp derived products as the non-acid form (REF).
Besides THC, more than 130 cannabinoids can be found in hemp. In the followings, cannabinoids are referred to in their decarboxylated (non-acid) form for more clarity.
CBD is, along with Δ9-THC, one of the two major cannabinoids generally produced by hemp. It was first isolated and identified in 1940 by the American chemist Roger Adams and his co-workers (Adams et al., 1940)
Contrary to Δ9-THC, CBD has no psychotropic potency (Pisanti et al., 2017). Moreover, if present in sufficient proportion, CBD can mitigate or even supress psychotropic potency of Δ9-THC (Niesink and van Laar, 2013; Schubart et al., 2011).
Δ9-THC is, along with Δ9-THC, one of the two major cannabinoids generally produced by hemp. It was first isolated and identified in 1964 by the Israeli Dr. Yechiel Gaoni and Prof. Raphel Mechoulam (Gaoni and Mechoulam, 1964).
Δ9-THC has a high psychotropic potency and is for this reason classified as controlled substance by many national and international regulations. In Switzerland, two main ordinances from the Swiss Federal Office of Public Health (SFOPH) indicate what the legal Δ9-THC limit depending on the designation of the product:
CBC is a common cannabinoid found in hemp. It is largely considered as non-psychotropic cannabinoid (Russo, 2011; Turner et al., 1980).
CBC is generally present in same quantity as THC in indoor grown hemp, but can reach notably higher content (up to 5 times that of THC) in outdoor grown hemp.
CBG is considered as the “parent” cannabinoids that is produced at first by hemp plants, and further metabolized to other cannabinoids such as CBD or Δ9-THC.
Δ8-THC has a molecular structure very close to Δ9-THC, buts is rather known to expose a notably lower psychotropic potency (as reported by the American National Health Institute https://www.cancer.gov/publications/dictionaries/cancer-drug/def/delta-8-tetrahydrocannabinol).
It is generally present in CBD rich hemp as a product of CBD degradation, usually in amount equivalent to 1- 2% of the total CBD content.
CBN is the product of Δ9-THC degradation.
CBL is the product of CBC degradation.
CBDv, THCv, CBCv etc..: the cannabinoid-varine groupe
The cannabinoid-varine group includes a series of cannabinoids with very similar structure as the above listed ones (CBD, THC, CBD etc.), but with a shorter alkyl chain (like a shorter “tail”, as shown in the above illustration).
These cannabinoids are usually less concentrated in hemp than the other ones.
Terpenes and terpenoids
Terpenes form an important family of chemical compounds produced by hemp, and also by many other plants and animals. These are the aromatic molecules which give to the various variety of hemp their particular scents and tastes. More than 200 different terpenes have been identified in hemp.
These molecules are hydrocarbons, all built from the same basic unit: isoprene.
Depending on the number of isoprene units which are assembled, several sub-groups are further distinguished: monoterpenes (2 units), sesquiterpenes (3 units), diterpennes (4 units) etc.
Hemp also produces a large series of compounds called terpenoids. These are in fact similar hydrocarbons with functional groups, usually containing oxygen (e.g. alcool, acids, cetones, esters..). These are often referred to as “oxygenated terpenes”. Cannabinoids are in fact diterpenoids (i.e. based on 4 isoprene units with additional functional groups).
Amongst all those various terpenoids, some are considered as are key precursor for all the other terpenes, terpenoids, and, thus, cannabinoids. This means that hemp first produces these parent molecules, and further transforms them to produce the other above described compounds (see next section).
Synthesis of cannabinoid
The precursor Geranyl pyrophosphate (GP) is considered as the parent of all the other terpenes. Hemp also procures two other precursors, olivetolic acid (OA) and divarolinic acid (DA), which are then reacted with GP to produce CBG and CBGv respectively. These two “parent cannabinoids” are then further transformed to produce all the other cannabinoids found in hemp.
The ratio between the different cannabinoids contents is primarily determined by genetics, and further influenced by environment. This is especially the case by dealing with the CBD: Δ9-THC ratio, which falls within pretty narrow range of value.
Three main groups of hemp can be identified:
– The CBD-dominant strains with a CBD:THC ratio generally between 20:1 and 32:1. Some varieties can have a ratio as low as 15:1, but are rarely encountered.
– the balanced strains with a CBD:THC ratio falling between 1:1 and 4:1
– the THC-dominant strains with a CBD:THC well below 1:50, down to 1:200
Only CBD-dominant strains are likely to contain low enough THC content to be considered legal. Since the CBD:THC of the CBD dominant strains is fixed by the genetic and pretty distinct from the two other types, it can be predicted by analysing young plants. It falls in a pretty narrow range, as outlined by the following diagram:
Copyright by Alplant GmbH Dr. Jebril Hadi
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Gaoni, Y. & Mechoulam, R. (1964). Isolation, Structure, and Partial Synthesis of an Active Constituent of Hashish. Journal of the American Chemical Society 86, 1646-1647.
Niesink, R.J.M. & van Laar, M.W. (2013). Does Cannabidiol Protect Against Adverse Psychological Effects of THC? Frontiers in psychiatry 4, 130-130.
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Schubart, C.D., Sommer, I.E.C., van Gastel, W.A., Goetgebuer, R.L., Kahn, R.S. & Boks, M.P.M. (2011). Cannabis with high cannabidiol content is associated with fewer psychotic experiences. Schizophrenia Research 130, 216-221.
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