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CBD: Synthetic or Natural?

CBD: Synthetic or Natural?
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Conor O’Brien


Following the release of the CBD supply report , we delve into the question of synthetic and natural CBD: what is the difference and why does it matter?


CBD is a compound found naturally in cannabis plants, which is used for its various properties including treating inflammation, seizures and anxiety. In general, natural CBD refers to any CBD which is obtained from cannabis Sativa plants while synthetic CBD is made using chemical or biological processes in the lab, such as using yeast.

A widespread discussion of the pros and cons of synthetic and natural CBD is now occurring within the cannabis industry. The main issues reside in the differences of the two in terms of: efficacy and safety, consumer preference, cost-effectiveness and legality.

Effectiveness & Safety

It is useful to consider in which ways synthetic and natural CBD might be different. For example, some believe that the compound itself will vary depending on its origins. However, in the past laboratories of synthetic CBD manufacturers as well as the National Institute of Drug Abuse have determined that at least some synthetic CBD is chemically identical to natural CBD;  i.e., it is the same compound.

This means that a medicine with pure natural or pure synthetically produced CBD should yield the exact same health and mood benefits, with the exact same safety profile. Supporting this, researchers at the University of Freiburg have determined synthetic CBD to have similar safety and efficacy in treating epilepsy as natural CBD.

If the compounds are indeed the same, then another difference could arise from the purity of the various products. Synthetic products may tend to be purer as there are many compounds in hemp plants which need to be removed before a pure product is obtained.

However, one popular idea is that other compounds from hemp support the various effects of CBD in a phenomenon termed the “entourage effect”. The jury is still out on whether the entourage effect produces real and substantial differences e.g. in the calming or antiepileptic effects of CBD, with various studies finding evidence both for and against the idea.

The Cost-effectiveness of CBD

Another consideration is whether synthetic CBD can be produced on mass in a way which is cost-effective when compared to natural CBD. There have been no large-scale studies on this and as such, it is not known which process will be cheaper in the long run. Hemp benefits from ease of growth and all of the modern agricultural and extraction techniques and infrastructure. However, producers of synthetic CBD argue that it will soon be much cheaper to synthesize the compound.

Synthesizing CBD in the lab has the benefits of easily producing a precise and pure product, and may require less costly inputs of resources such as land and water. Circumventing field-grown hemp could also mean reducing the time taken to produce bulk quantities as producers need not rely on lengthy rounds of harvesting plant material.

When Cronos agreed a supply agreement with biosynthetic group Ginkgo Bioworks in 2018, the forecasted cost of production was 5 times lower than that of the going rate for natural CBD.

The wholesale CBD market is currently extremely competitive, as more and more suppliers enter the market. For example, the price for various CBD wholesale products such as crude hemp oil and CBD isolate reduced by more than 80% year on year to May of 2020 according to Hemp Benchmarks.

Patient Preference

Patient preferences are another factor which may ultimately determine the course of development of the CBD industry. Even if synthetic CBD is proven to be as effective and cheaper, many consumers and patients still may opt for the natural counterpart.

Part of the attraction to CBD is that it is seen as a natural alternative to many pharmaceuticals which have suffered increasing levels of scepticism from patients and consumers. For example, researchers in Germany have found that almost three quarters of epilepsy patients prefer to take natural CBD, citing reasons such as “lack of chemicals” and “better tolerance”.

Source:Von Wrede (2020)/ Prohibition Partners

The image of CBD as a holistic and natural therapeutic may mean that natural CBD products are the only ones which will eventually make for a profitable and sustainable industry.

CBD Legality 

In general, synthetic CBD benefits from being under less strict control than natural CBD. Natural CBD is controlled under the UN Single Convention on Narcotic Substances under schedule 1. This is a major reason why CBD remains a controlled substance in regions like the US and EU.

The EU also controls CBD as a Novel Food ingredient, meaning that any ingestible product containing CBD must pass a rigorous and costly approvals procedure. Note that an upcoming UN vote in December could see CBD products with THC of less than 0.2% removed from international control.

In contrast, synthetic CBD is not subject to international control as a narcotic, as it is not specifically mentioned by the UN Single Convention, which refers only to substances derived from “the flowering or fruiting tops of the cannabis plant”.

The European Commission is currently considering rescheduling CBD as a narcotic under a new interpretation of the UN Single Convention which would severely limit the scope for a European market. While it is yet to be seen if the narcotic status of CBD will be confirmed, synthetic CBD will not be controlled in the same way, due to its omission in the Single Convention.

While the CBD industry is taking off, it is very probable that synthetic CBD with very high purity will find a place in the market. While biological and chemical synthesis will very likely be a more efficient way to produce CBD in the future, the preferences of consumers for natural products mean that hemp-derived products will remain dominant for the foreseeable future, so long as the sector is not curtailed by regulations such as the European Commission’s potential labelling of natural CBD as a narcotic.

CBD Supply Report

To find out more about the CBD industry, and how it is being shaped by key influences such as evolving regulations as well as the COVID-19 pandemic, see Prohibition Partner’s free CBD Supply Report. Within this report, Prohibition Partners examines the legislation, cultivation, extraction, production, finance and retail across the global CBD industry. Moving away from the fragmented structure that has characterised the industry, we document the rise of vertical integration and the emergence of regulation.

CBD: A Supply Overview is available now for free download.

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