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Four Pillars of Cannabis Science

Updated: Dec 20, 2023

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Four Pillars of Cannabis Science

The Four Pillars of Cannabis Science provides students with a convenient framework through which to view the world of the commerce and chemistry of marijuana and hemp. It is comprised of only the top-most topics on the subject. It is under these primary subjects all other topics or issues in the cannabis industry fall—particularly with respect to the seminars and courses offered by Higher Learning LV.

A field of cannabis plants.
Four pillars of pot science.

The Four Pillars of Cannabis Science include:

  • Cannabinoids

  • Endocannabinoid System

  • Flavonoids

  • Terpenes

This list is bulleted, not numbered, because the order of these topics is not of importance. Most peer-reviewed research about cannabis (marijuana and hemp) pertains to these four pillars. At the end of this free article, students will have a solid understanding of this framework and the basic ways in which these pillars influence one another.


"According to the latest peer-reviewed research studies, a few plants other than cannabis produce a handful of cannabinoids (not all)."

Cannabinoids

Four Pillars of Cannabis Science. Cannabinoids are special molecules that are made by very few botanical species. For years urban legends circulated in the cannabis culture that claimed plants other than cannabis produce cannabinoids. According to the latest peer-reviewed research studies, a few plants other than cannabis produce a handful of cannabinoids (not all). Learn more here and here.


The first cannabinoid to be discovered, cannabinol (CBN), was identified in 1896 by a group of British chemists. Other significant scientific milestones or discoveries occurred most notably in the 1930s, 1940s, 1960s, and 1990s. Today, a search of the medical research database Pubmed will yield about 43,000 peer-reviewed investigations of cannabis. Half of these studies were published in the past 10 years. That equals 175 cannabis studies per month, or nearly six per week!

Molecular formulas of cannabinoids.
Molecular formulas of cannabinoids.

Most Popular: CBD & Delta-9 THC

Recent research, however, has indicated that a small number of plant species produce a limited number of cannabinoids. It is of note to observe that the most popular and common cannabinoids, cannabidiol (CBD) and delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), are produced by only cannabis. However, this study, this study, and this study revealed that botanical species other than Cannabis sativa L. produce some of the same cannabinoids as marijuana and hemp.


"Cannabinoids of all types are significant because they have demonstrated medicinal efficacy for humans and mammals."

Cannabinoids of all types are significant because they have demonstrated medicinal efficacy for humans and mammals (any creature featuring an endocannabinoid system). These potentially positive outcomes include reductions in the volume of cancerous tumors, lower inflammation (benefitting literally hundreds of conditions), and sometimes significant improvements in common disorders such as anxiety, depression, and sleep disorders.

A person holds the leaves of a growing cannabis plant.
CBD & THC are popular.

Endocannabinoids vs. Phytocannabinoids vs. Synthetic

Three primary categories of cannabinoids exist: Endocannabinoids, phytocannabinoids, and synthetic cannabinoids. Endocannabinoids are those manufactured by the human body (or the bodies of our favorite pets). The two most popular endocannabinoids are 2-AG and anandamide (also called the bliss molecule).


Phytocannabinoids are those made by marijuana and hemp, of which the two most researched and commercially viable examples are CBD and THC. Synthetic cannabinoids are those crafted by scientists within laboratory settings using advanced equipment. Synthetic cannabinoids are typically produced for the purpose of conducting research, often into a particular disease state, disorder, or condition.


"Cannabinoid consumption avenues include topicals, edibles, smoking, vaping, sublingual tinctures, and transdermal patches."

Cannabinoid Consumption Avenues

Cannabinoids are most commonly consumed via inhalation (smoking or vaporization, commonly called vaping), but are also often eaten (edibles, including the uber-popular form of gummies) or sublingually consumed (via tinctures under the tongue). However, cannabinoids can also be consumed via topicals (creams, lotions, balms, oils, etc.) and transdermal patches.


New technologies, including nanoemulsion, are allowing product formulators to offer cannabinoid-infused water-based beverages that are basically impossible with such advanced tech. Each consumption avenue offers a distinct set of pros and cons and is appropriate for different patient profiles.


For example, infused beverages involving nanoemulsion feature the best bioavailability of all consumption avenues and one of the shortest onset periods (of significant value to patients suffering chronic pain, nausea, or anxiety). Traditional oil-based edibles, such as the vast majority of infused gummies and confections on the market, offer the benefit of being the potentially most potent form of cannabis medicine. This is of benefit to many patients suffering advanced stages of serious diseases, including chronic pain, cancer, and anxiety.


Below, the consumption avenues and their major pros and cons are listed:

  • Edibles (traditional oil-based, like gummies): Most potent consumption type; longest onset period (60-120 minutes).

  • Smoking: Fast onset; harm thru carcinogens.

  • Sublingual tinctures: Convenient consumption where inhalation not permitted (office settings, airplanes, etc.); bioavailability not as good as nanoemulsified beverages.

  • Topicals: Localized treatment of skin conditions and underlying muscles and tendons; potentially slow onset.

  • Transdermal patches: Like sublingual tinctures, a direct-to-the-bloodstream avenue; most nascent avenue with evolving tech.

  • Vaporization (vaping): Fast onset and safer than smoking; not an option for patients with respiratory ailments.

A microscopic image of a nanoemulsified liquid.
Nanoemulsified soda is coming.

Nanoemulsion Tech for Infused Beverages

Nanoemulsion exceeds the scope of this seminar, but students should remember that this tech allows cannabis products containing cannabinoids like CBD and delta-8 or delta-9 THC to be offered to patients and consumers in the form of a water-based beverage. Such nanoemulsified beverages offer the significant benefits of shorter onset period, greater bioavailability (increasing value for all parties in the production chain), and sometimes extended duration of efficacy.


To learn more about nanoemulsion technology and its use in popular cannabinoid-infused beverages, see episode No. 42 of the Cannabis Commerce + Chemistry Podcast featuring Tanner Ezell from Highest Ground Coffee.


"Other cannabinoids, including cannabigerol (CBG) and cannabinol (CBN), have also demonstrated pronounced medicinal efficacy."

Remember Subjective Efficacy

Other cannabinoids, including cannabigerol (CBG) and cannabinol (CBN), have also demonstrated pronounced medicinal efficacy for some disease states under some conditions. However, it should be noted that none of these phytomolecules offer a panacea to patients. None are "miraculous" and they typically do not deliver a true cure. Efficacy is subjective, with some patients demonstrating marked improvements, including for cancer, anxiety, depression, chronic pain, and sleep disorders.

A schematic showing the locations of ECS receptors in the human body.
The ECS is pervasive.

Endocannabinoid System

Four Pillars of Cannabis Science. Perhaps the most shocking revelation about the endocannabinoid system (ECS) for most students is the fact that it extends well beyond the realm of humans. In fact, not only do all mammals possess an endocannabinoid system, it is a biological feature of all vertebrates!


"In practical everyday terms, this means that common household pets, such as dogs and cats, sometimes benefit from the use of cannabinoids from marijuana and hemp."

The ECS is a relatively recent discovery in the history of medicine. It wasn't until the 1990s that Israeli scientists discovered one of the molecules produced by the ECS, which lead to various investigations over the years with the goal of better understanding the components of this system and how they interact to potentially produce positive outcomes for patients and lifestyle consumers.

In practical everyday terms, this means that common household pets, such as dogs and cats, sometimes benefit from the use of cannabinoids from marijuana and hemp, just like their human companions.

A yellow flower in Southern California.
Flavonoids give pigment.

Flavonoids

Flavonoids are phytomolecules that are, functionally speaking, very similar to cannabinoids and terpenes. In a global scheme, flavonoids represent a hybrid of how terpenes and cannabinoids are expressed in nature. Most cannabinoids are produced only cannabis (particularly stalwart players CBD and THC), while not a single terpene is exclusive to marijuana or hemp.


"A special set of flavonoids that is exclusive to cannabis has been discovered. Called cannflavins, these romantically named molecules include cannflavin A, cannflavin B, and cannflavin C."

In contrast, most flavonoids are not exclusive to cannabis. However, a special set of flavonoids that is exclusive to cannabis has been discovered. Called cannflavins, these romantically named molecules include cannflavin A, cannflavin B, and cannflavin C.


The most pronounced medicinal efficacies of flavonoids are similar to those of cannabinoids and terpenes: Anti-inflammatory powers and marked anti-cancer efficacy.

An alpha-pinene air freshener in a car in Las Vegas.
Most common terpene on earth.

Terpenes

As students have learned, not a single terpene is exclusive to the botanical species Cannabis sativa L. Globally, about 20,000 plant types produce more than 40,000 terpenes (one study theorized that more than 70,000 terpene varieties exist in nature CITE).


"Of the 150 or so terpenes in cannabis, only about eight commonly appear in volumes of significance for the average consumer or the companies that serve them."

Of these, between 150 and 200 appear in marijuana and hemp, depending on the precise study cited and when it was published. Of these 150 or so terpenes in cannabis, only about eight commonly appear in volumes of significance for the average consumer or the companies that serve them. These eight terpenes, called Super Class Terpenes according to this October 2022 study, include alpha-pinene, humulene, ocimene, terpinolene, myrcene, limonene, linalool, and beta-caryophyllene (BCP).


To learn more about the Super Class Terpenes, see the Higher Learning LV course Core Cannabis, which also teaches students about the 25 most important cannabinoids.

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