Cannabis Plant Science

What are Cannabinoids?


What are Cannabinoids?

Cannabinoids are a group of compounds that interact with the human body through the endocannabinoid system. They bind to cannabinoid receptors, which results in certain effects on the human body. Cannabinoids occur naturally in human bodies (endocannabinoids) and the cannabis plant (phytocannabinoids), but have also been made in laboratory environments (synthetic cannabinoids). The most common and well-known cannabinoids are THC (delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol) and CBD (cannabidiol).

What do cannabinoids do?

Cannabinoids interact with the body’s endocannabinoid system to bring about various physiological effects. They are naturally occurring lipid signalling molecules that are synthesised on demand in response to noxious stimuli. They transport messages to a variety of sites where they activate cannabinoid receptors. The exact effects vary based on the type of cannabinoid and the specific activation site. While research about the endocannabinoid system is still in early stages, it is thought to play an important role in regulating many bodily functions including memory, mood regulation, sleep, appetite, inflammatory and immune response and nociception.

What types of endocannabinoids are there?

Endocannabinoids, or “endogenous” cannabinoids are naturally occurring lipid signalling molecules in the human body. They are synthesised on demand in response to noxious stimuli. Endocannabinoids transport messages to a number of sites where they activate cannabinoid receptors to influence specific effects. The two main types of endocannabinoids that have been discovered are anandamide (AEA) and 2-arachidonoyl glycerol (2-AG). They are produced naturally in the human body and form within the internal lipid constituents of cellular membranes. Anandamide and 2-AG are primarily present in peripheral and brain tissue. Both of these are not actually stored in the human body, but rather synthesised on demand.


Anandamide was the first endocannabinoid discovered within the human body. AEA derives its name from the Sanskrit word “bliss” and is often referred to as the “bliss molecule” for its role in modulating feelings of pleasure. It binds to the same receptors that the phytocannabinoid THC does. The CB1 receptors are found throughout the central nervous system, whilst CB2 receptors are found throughout peripheral organs and the immune system.


2-Arachidonoylglycerol (2-AG) is primarily present within the central nervous system and found in peripheral tissues and organs. It acts as a full agonist to the CB1 and CB2 receptors in the body. 2-AG is the most abundant endocannabinoid throughout the human body and it is thought to play a role in synaptic plasticity in addition to modulating neurotransmitter release at the cannabinoid receptor sites.

What types of phytocannabinoids are there?

There are a range of different phytocannabinoids in existence but most common are the THC (delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol) and CBD (cannabidiol). These are commonly referred to as “major cannabinoids”. Medicinal cannabis products may feature either a dominant profile of CBD or THC, but depending on their formulation may have a more balanced ratio of cannabinoids. They come from the cannabis plant and are produced by structures called trichomes. Depending on the exact strain, the phytocannabinoid makeup of the plant will differ. Phytocannabinoids are extracted from the cannabis plant and then included in medicinal cannabis products.


CBD is a common cannabinoid in many medicinal cannabis products. It is used in a range of products including oils, capsules and dried flowers. CBD does not produce psychoactive effects and interacts with the endocannabinoid system (ECS) in a different manner to THC. It interacts with multiple receptor pathways and does not bind directly to CB1 or CB2 receptors. It exerts influence indirectly by modifying the receptor’s ability to bind to other cannabinoids. For example, CBD is a partial antagonist at the CB1 site affecting the binding of THC, and potentially mitigating some of the effects of THC.


THC is a cannabinoid contained in a range of medicinal cannabis products. THC is the primary psychoactive compound found within cannabis, and works by binding with high affinity to CB1 receptors in the brain and CNS. Given its psychoactive nature, THC is highly regulated in Australia. Another important consideration for THC is driving regulations. In most of Australia it is against the law to drive with THC present in your system, regardless of whether or not you are impaired. If stopped for a random drug test and THC is detected, a patient may face a fine or loss of their licence. We recommend that healthcare professionals check the state’s driving laws. 

Minor cannabinoids

Cannabinoids outside of CBD and THC are generally referred to as minor cannabinoids. They are called minor cannabinoids because they are generally found in smaller concentrations in the cannabis plant. Their structural differences give them varied effects. Some of the more well-known minor cannabinoids include CBN (cannabinol), CBG (cannabigerol) and CBC (cannabichromene). They can be utilised as part of medicinal cannabis products such as vaporisers to support the entourage effect.

What are synthetic cannabinoids?

Synthetic cannabinoids are artificially developed in laboratories. Some synthetic cannabinoids aim to replicate naturally occurring cannabinoids like THC. These types of cannabinoids are not legal under the current medicinal cannabis regulatory framework in Australia that has been set out by the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA).

What is the chemical structure of a cannabinoid?

The chemical structure of cannabinoids varies depending on the specific cannabinoid in question. Endocannabinoids are derived from fatty acids within the human body and have a lipid structure. Phytocannabinoids are phenolic compounds with a multi-ring structure. Their structure is generally related to that of THC. 

The chemical structure of a cannabinoid can have a significant impact on how it will interact with cannabinoid receptors in the human body. This is exemplified by the structures of THC and CBD. While both substances have a cyclic structure, the arrangement between the two molecules is slightly different. CBD has an open ring whereas THC has a closed ring. This may seem like a small difference, but it results in significantly different interactions with cannabinoids receptors and therefore different effects for users.

Want to learn more?

Healthcare professionals can learn more about the nuance of medicinal cannabis administration methods by accessing the healthcare professionals portal. If you have any questions about our cannabis vaporiser products, contact us today.

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