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Understanding Chemical Synthesis, Synthetic Cannabinoids, and Processes in the Hemp Industry

In the field of chemistry, words such as “synthesis, synthetic, degradation, isomerization, conversion, organic, and inorganic” are commonly utilized. These terms are closely interconnected, leading to confusion among individuals without a chemistry background and occasionally even within the marketing of our industry. However, in the scientific laboratory setting, each of these terms holds distinct and precise meanings.

The hemp industry is currently particularly focused on the utilization and misapplication of the terms “synthetic,” “synthesis,” and “degradation” in relation to various products containing synthetic cannabinoids. This has resulted in significant confusion and concerns regarding product safety. The following sections will examine the specific relevance of these terms, clarify their usage and significance, and address the anxieties surrounding product conversions and safety.

Chemical synthesis

Chemical synthesis is the process of creating new chemical compounds or molecules by combining two or more chemical substances. This can be achieved through a variety of methods, including mixing, heating, cooling, and applying various chemical reactions. A compound is considered synthetic if it is created through a chemical synthesis process, as opposed to being found in nature.

Chemical synthesis vs. synthetic chemical

“Chemical synthesis” and “synthetic chemical” are related terms but different concepts. Chemical synthesis refers to the process of creating new chemical compounds or molecules by combining two or more chemical substances. It is a deliberate, human-controlled process of chemical synthesis, typically carried out in a laboratory or industrial setting.

Medical cannabis oil. Marijuana leaf with oil extract. Generative ai

A synthetic chemical is not found in nature and is solely created in a lab or industrial setting. Natural compounds are also often easily and accurately recreated in the lab. Two very different classifications, though both are produced in a scientific lab or industrial setting.

Synthetic and Naturally Occurring Cannabinoids

Synthetic cannabinoids are chemical compounds that mimic the effects of natural cannabinoids found in the cannabis plant. However, some synthetic cannabinoids are not found in nature and are solely created in a laboratory or industrial setting. Here are some examples of synthetic cannabinoids not found in nature: JWH-018, AM-2201, HU-331, and many others. These are not currently on the market but are used in research settings.

Examples of Synthetic Cannabinoids

There are three synthetic cannabinoids you might have heard of before, however. The first one is the illegal street drug Spice (aka, K2). This is a cannabinoid not found in nature, and it has many negative effects. 

The second synthetic cannabinoid drug is Marinol, a pharmaceutical THC drug used to help cancer patients overcome the adverse health effects of chemotherapy and radiation. Even though the THC in Marinol does exist in nature, it was created from non-cannabinoid ingredients in the lab setting, making it 100% synthetic. 

The third synthetic cannabinoid is THC-O-acetate. THC-O is unique in that it is created by starting with Delta-8-THC, a natural cannabinoid, and applying specific chemical catalysts. Still, the result is an unnatural cannabinoid, not found in nature, requiring the classification of THC-O as synthetic. THC-O presents real safety concerns. As you can see, some synthetic cannabinoids are beneficial, and some are not.

Delta-8-THC, Hemp Delta-9-THC, CBN, HHC: Synthetic or Not?

The above-listed cannabinoids are not synthetic. All of those cannabinoids exist in nature, in the cannabis sativa plant, in varying degrees. They occur in the plant through a process of natural degradation over time.

Portrait of scientist with mask, glasses and gloves checking hemp plants in a greenhouse. Concept of herbal alternative medicine, cbd oil, pharmaceptical industry

Cannabinoid Degradation and Conversion Process

Cannabinoid degradation is the process of breaking down cannabinoids into smaller molecules over time due to various factors such as exposure to heat, light, and oxygen. During the plant’s growth, it produces cannabinoids as a defense chemical against insect pests. 

These chemicals also help the plant resist fungal infections and bacterial infestations and provide many helpful benefits to mammals. The first cannabinoid the plant produces is Cannabigerolic acid (CBGa). CBGa is called the “mother of all cannabinoids” because from CBGa come all other forms of cannabinoids through degradation.

CBGa Degradation Over Time

CBGa is a non-psychoactive cannabinoid that is present in cannabis plant material in relatively small amounts. Over time, CBG can degrade into other cannabinoids, such as the acidic forms of CBD, CBN, CBC, CBT, and D9-THC, and D8-THC, among many others. The process is slow, and many cannabinoids are only produced in minor amounts. 

In an effort to harness the benefits and make these compounds commercially viable, scientists developed synthesis processes to speed up what mother nature does in the field and actually improve on it. These processes essentially recreate the environmental conditions that lead to CBGa’s conversion into other cannabinoids.

In the field, exposure to UV light from the sun and oxygen from our atmosphere results in oxidization that takes CBGa through a very predictable evolution into other cannabinoids. While numerous cannabinoids are produced during this process, the primary ones can be summarized in the following sequence:

CBG -> CBD -> THC -> CBN

By understanding and controlling this degradation process, scientists can efficiently produce a range of cannabinoids for various applications while maintaining their natural properties.

Replicating the Natural Process in a Lab Setting

The replication of the natural process, which can be accelerated, is achieved safely within a laboratory environment through the utilization of chemical catalysts. The processing rate is enhanced while maintaining the identical steps that cannabinoids undergo in nature, allowing for easy control.

These cannabinoids are not synthetic, even though they are produced through synthesis. They are natural compounds, no different than those made in nature. They simply arrived through a process that did not occur in the field.

A scientist or apothecary extracts CBD hemp oil for medicinal purposes in a laboratory. Alternative cannabis-based medicine produced from cannabis extraction machine.

Safety Concerns With the Lab Process

Converting CBD into Delta-8-THC

I’ll briefly describe the lab process of converting CBD into Delta-8-THC.

We start with refined and purified CBD distillate or isolate. The CBD is dissolved in a pure non-polar solvent, like heptane, pentane, or hexane. This is to thin the cannabinoid out and facilitate a fast and complete conversion. Then, a certain amount of catalyst is introduced under exacting temperatures and for a specific reaction time. 

Lots of catalysts can be utilized, but p-Toluenesulfonic acid (PTSA) is usually used. PTSA causes degradation, which mimics what happens under natural conditions, but it manages the process in hours instead of months or years and is very controlled. 

Once the reaction is completed, the acid is neutralized to halt the process. Following this, the mixture is combined with a saltwater solution known as a brine wash.

The immiscibility of oil and water plays a crucial role here, as the objective is to facilitate the migration of the more polar PTSA catalysts from the oil and non-polar solvent into the highly polar saltwater solution. Due to its significantly greater polarity than both the solvent and the cannabinoid oils, PTSA readily transitions from the oil and solvent phase into the saltwater phase. 

This process happens under agitation or stirring over a period of time, the saltwater is removed, and then the process is repeated a few more times. After three or four “washes,” all PTSA has left the solvent/cannabinoid solution and has moved into the saltwater.

Once left with a clean solvent/cannabinoid mixture, the solvent is evaporated off in a rotary evaporator (a large piece of lab equipment that heats the mixture under a very deep vacuum). What remains is delta-8-THC, free of catalyst and free of solvent. That Delta-8-THC is then sent off for laboratory analysis to determine potency and purity.

The process used in the hemp industry, as well as in the pharmaceutical and food processing industries, is neither unusual nor complicated. It is important to acknowledge that while many medications are catalyzed with PTSA and solvents, these medications undergo rigorous testing and regulation to remove residual solvents and catalysts before they are considered safe for consumption.

However, it is crucial to recognize that the level of regulation in the hemp industry may vary, and consumers should take precautions to ensure the quality and safety of the products they use. 

The emphasis on proper testing protocols instead of outright substance banning is driven by the importance of informed decision-making and the rejection of discriminatory treatment stemming from a lack of understanding. It is crucial to prioritize the exploration of comprehensive information and evidence-based approaches to ensure public safety and promote fair treatment across industries.

Residual Acids and pH Testing

There isn’t much to be concerned about regarding residual acids being left behind. One of the tests used to determine acidity is the pH test.

A product with residual acid would test at a low pH value. These products end up testing with a pH that is equivalent to water, with a pH of about 7.0. For comparison, a can of Coke is extremely unhealthy and acidic at a pH of 2.5.

It is important to note that pH testing is just one aspect of a comprehensive testing regimen. To ensure the safety and purity of cannabinoid products, additional tests should be conducted, including assessments of cannabinoid content, heavy metals, microbial contaminants, and residual solvents. By implementing a thorough testing protocol, the industry can ensure the highest standards of safety and quality for consumers.

Naturally Accelerated

In summary, what the hemp chemistry industry has achieved is identical to what occurs in nature but accelerated. The process is very controlled and undertaken according to longstanding chemistry practices. These processes were pioneered by the brilliant chemist Dr. Raphael Mecholaum in Israel many decades ago and are very well-defined. Controlled laboratory environments ensure the production of safe and reliable hemp products similar to those found at Hemponix.

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