Synthetic cannabinoids are better known to the world as recreational drugs such as Spice or K2. But the same customisability that leads to them being such potent recreational drugs, which in many cases evade controls, can also be used to target other cannabinoid receptors – potentially leading to myriad medical applications.
But the reputation of synthetic cannabinoids – or more properly synthetic cannabinoid receptor agonists (SCRAs) – precedes them, leading to restrictions on use and even research. For example, rather than engaging in a regulatory game of cat-and-mouse, the UK regulates SCRAs through a generic definition.
This means that research organisations engaging in SCRA-type research must generally operate under the presumption that they are working with a controlled substance.
Although the generic definition has been improved following legislative action in 2019, research organisations still face considerable expenses, such as obtaining relevant licences and securing storage.
The result of this is that questions remain about the extent of the therapeutic potential of SCRAs. Current research suggests the adverse effects of SCRAs may far outweigh any clinical benefit, particularly when viewed comparatively to known effective cannabis therapies.
Therapeutic function vs unwanted effects
But the idea that “boutique” SCRAs can be tailored chemically to exert a specific function, like strong affinity for non-psychoactive CB2 receptors, while antagonising (blocking) psychoactive CB1 receptors, means such compounds could be ideal pharmaceutical candidates for a litany of conditions. These might include cancer, inflammatory diseases, and pain.
So far, however, more research is needed to discover this ideal cannabinoid that isolates therapeutic function from undesirable effects.
The challenge is that the initial stages of drug development, when a new therapeutic compound is discovered, is generally conducted by universities, often operating within tight budgets. The point at which research into SCRAs is abandoned for easier and cheaper subjects without such regulatory barriers is quite low, preventing progress in the field before it begins.
To potentially change this, in July 2021 the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) released part I in a series of reports on research barriers facing SCRAs. It called for three concrete recommendations, including allowing research bodies to possess a 100 mg de minimis supply of SCRAs that are largely exempt from controls.
These provisions would go far in eliminating the costly regulations falling on universities, but they face a tough road ahead before they become law.
The UK government has responded with scepticism that a research organisation can be adequately defined. More troubling, it has requested that reforms for SCRAs be folded in with other Schedule I substances, a move which is likely to hinder meaningful advancement in the near term.
– Freddie Dawson CannIntelligence staff
Artwork: Gerd Altmann