The legal cannabis market has exploded in recent years, with sales in the U.S. reaching an estimated $12.4 billion in 2019, forecast to rise to $31 billion by 2024. The market for cannabidiol (CBD) has also grown rapidly, with U.S. sales totaling $2.6 billion in 2019, on track to reach $18 billion by 2024. While THC and CBD are the most widely known and marketed compounds found in Cannabis sativa, a few of the other 113 currently identified cannabinoids show potential for therapeutic and recreational applications and have attracted the attention of both researchers and those in the industry.
THC has garnered the most attention of any cannabinoid in recent history since it was isolated by Dr. Raphael Mechoulam at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel in 1964. Specifically, THC is a metabolite of THCa, a non-intoxicating cannabinoid that is produced in high quantities by cannabis. There is limited evidence to show that THCa alone has anti-inflammatory and neuroprotective qualities, but the compound must be decarboxylated with heat to turn into THC. THC is known for its intoxicating effect, and is widely used to treat chronic pain, nausea and insomnia, as well as psychological conditions such as PTSD and anxiety.
Because THC produces a strong narcotic effect, it has been popular around the globe for centuries, leading to cannabis growers selectively breeding C. sativa strains that produce an abundance of the compound. Because of this selective breeding, high-THC “marijuana” plants have developed an appearance and growing process that differs greatly from low-THC hemp plants that have been bred for industrial purposes such as fiber and seed.
CBD (or cannabidiol) was first isolated in 1940 by American chemist Roger Adams but took a backseat to THC in terms of popularity until recent years. CBD lacks the powerful intoxicating effects of THC but can be used for many of the same therapeutic applications. CBD has become more common in U.S. legal cannabis markets, with BDSA retail sales tracking showing that 10% of cannabis products sold in 2019 were high in CBD, up from just 3% in 2015.
Perhaps most notable among CBD’s medical properties is its efficacy as a treatment for epilepsy, which led to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approving a CBD treatment under the brand name Epidiolex in June 2018, making it the first cannabis-derived cannabinoid treatment to be approved in the U.S. 2018 also saw the passage of the latest Farm Bill, which legalized commercial hemp cultivation. While the production and mass market distribution of food products containing CBD remains contingent on future FDA guidance, the Farm Bill opened the door for large-scale hemp production and potentially for much wider availability of cannabinoid products beyond the licensed dispensary channel.
Several of the lesser-known cannabinoids have already garnered interest of industry professionals and made their way onto store shelves in medical and adult-use legal states. Among these are cannabinol (CBN), cannabigerol (CBG) and THCv.
CBN: Mildly intoxicating, high sedation. CBN is one of the compounds cannabis consumers are more likely to have experienced, since this metabolite of THC is found in large quantities in aged cannabis. While CBN is one of the less-researched cannabinoids, anecdotal evidence shows that this mildly intoxicating compound can cause greater sedation when consumed with THC. As a result, several CBN products have appeared in legal cannabis markets, primarily marketed as sleep aids.
CBG: Non-intoxicating treatment for gastrointestinal inflammation. A precursor to THC, most cannabis varieties contain around 1% CBG, a non-intoxicating cannabinoid with promising potential medical applications. Though the research on this compound is not yet comprehensive, experiments on animal models show that CBG may be effective at treating gastrointestinal inflammation as well as being a neuroprotectant. Though more data is needed to prove the effectiveness of this cannabinoid, existing research shows that it may indeed hold some novel applications as a therapeutic treatment.
THCv: Pain-relief anti-inflammatory that dulls the appetite. Another cannabinoid that has garnered attention in recent years is THCv. Present in some but not all varieties of cannabis, THCv has less psychoactive effects at low doses, but produces a clear, non-drowsy “high” at higher doses. Unlike THC, which is famous for its appetite producing effect, THCv reported to dull the appetite in consumers, making it a potential godsend for those looking to enjoy the pain-relief and anti-inflammatory properties or THC, but without the accompanied munchies.
While many of the cannabinoids discussed have made it to legal markets, although with limited retail presence, they highlight an important point about the potential cannabis offers. With more in-depth research, this limited sample of compounds potentially yields a wide variety of applications for both recreational and medical use, potentially greatly increasing opportunities to expand the cannabis user base. With dozens of other cannabinoids that have yet to be explored in depth, there is no telling the amount of new treatments and consumer products could be derived from cannabis in the future.
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