Synthetically manufactured CBD - is this the future of Cannabis? - Natural Products - Strategic Advice
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Synthetically manufactured CBD – is this the future of Cannabis?

synthetically manufactured CBD oil

Synthetically manufactured CBD – is this the future of Cannabis?

In recent years, CBD or cannabidiol – a compound naturally occurring in cannabis plants – has become a popular natural supplement due to its long list of alleged therapeutic properties. It has been lauded as a painkiller for those living with chronic pain, as a topical treatment for chronic skin conditions, and numerous other health benefits. Yet until now, the emphasis has been on the power of CBD as a natural supplement.

Recent advances in biosynthesis – synthetically producing biological compounds like CBD in a lab – mean synthetically manufactured CBD has become possible. But is synthetic CBD the future of cannabis oil?

What exactly is synthetic CBD?

The compound CBD (cannabidiol) naturally occurs in both the cannabis plant people use to attain a ‘high’ and in hemp, another varietal which does not contain THC (tetrahydrocannabinol – the compound responsible for the ‘high’ effect when ingesting or smoking the one varietal).

Usually, ‘natural’ CBD oil is produced via a process of extraction from the plant, in much the same way as widely used aromatherapy oils such as rosemary oil or geranium oil are produced.

Synthetic CBD differs in that it is produced in a lab, without the plant cultivation and harvesting process. Jay Keasling, a bioengineer at the University of California at Berkeley and his team have been investigating ways to produce CBD in a lab by using marijuana DNA to tweak genes in yeast to produce the compounds that together form CBD.

The synthetic result of this process resembles CBD in its chemical properties and molecular construction, yet skips the lengthy process of cultivation involved in growing cannabis from seeds and extracting CBD oil from the mature plant.

Synthetic CBD: Why the push to manufacture CBD?

A thriving industry has grown around CBD oil due to the many health uses of this cannabis derivative. Big pharmaceutical companies and Chinese investors have caught onto the lucrative potential of CBD oil. Yet the profitability of CBD oil also means that investors are looking for ways to produce CBD oil at an industrial scale.

Naturally farmed hemp and marijuana both produce cannabidiol, but farming either variety of cannabis requires considerable resources – water, land, labour. This has driven laboratory efforts (and big donor funding) to synthetically manufacture CBD and skip out the entire ‘plant to oil’ process altogether.

Why do some say synthetically manufactured CBD is the future of Cannabis?

Apart from synthetic CBD being easier to produce at a large industrial scale (at lower cost), those championing synthetic CBD oil as the future list other benefits: People say laboratory-produced CBD is more cost-effective and environmentally-friendly due to not requiring large agricultural tracts for cultivating at an industrial scale.

Given the market potential (Business Insider reports that ‘the market for the compound could reach $16 billion by 2025’), it’s unsurprising that there is a concerted push to find a way to produce synthetic CBD on a large scale, for less.

What are the downsides of synthetic CBD?

Although many have a stake in manufacturing synthetic CBD, not everyone is positive about this development.

Some say, for example, that where naturally-derived CBD oil obtained from the hemp plant has few (if any) negative side-effects, synthetically-derived CBD may cause a litany of side effects. A 2015 study of synthetically-produced CBD and its side effects claims a host of possible effects including agitation, vomiting, tachycardia (abnormally rapid heart rate), confusion, and more.

Other potential downsides that have been raised by some regarding the growth of synthetic CBD manufacturing include issues surrounding regulation. For example, without consumers knowing where cannabis has been grown or produced, they may be more open to cheaper or more unscrupulously produced synthetic variants that have more harmful effects.

Those who are sceptical about developments in synthetic CBD manufacturing thus advise consumers to always find out where and how their CBD oil was produced.

Synthetic CBD: Where to from here?

The bioengineer who led the team at UC Berkeley, Jay Keasling, is optimistic about the potential for synthetic CBD after his team managed to synthesise the compound successfully at small scale. According to Keasling, cited in Business Insider, ‘there could be a whole host of new products that could come from this’.

Despite this optimism about the potential for synthetically manufactured CBD oil, there are still many unanswered questions. There have not been many clinical trials that investigate the potential side effects of synthetic CBD oil, for one.

A further reason for pause is the question of scale: Although synthetic CBD has been manufactured in small lab conditions, the question remains whether bioengineers will be able to manufacture it at scale, while keeping the cost of production down to a degree that this method can rival traditional CBD oil production for cost-efficiency. Even so, recent developments suggest synthetic CBD oil could become a more significant part of the health supplement landscape in the months and years to come. 

CBD legalised in SA – but only for one year

In an interesting development in May 2019, South African Health Minister, Aaron Motsoaledi, advised that CBD had been removed from the list of scheduled-drugs and further that, for at least the next 12 months, low-dose CBD products will fall outside the scheduling system that controls drugs. The exemption means that low-dose CBD preparations can be sold without prescription by anyone.

There are of course conditions to the exemption, namely that “the maximum daily dose of CBD must be 20 milligrams or less, and the product cannot claim to cure or treat any specific condition. It may only advertise ‘general health enhancement’, or ‘health maintenance’, or promise ‘relief of minor symptoms’, as long as those symptoms are not linked to a disease or disorder.

This amendment to our medicine laws makes South Africa the first country in Africa to legalise non-prescription CBD and bodes well for the impending announcements from SAHPRA on the regulatory standoff since August 2017.

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