Therapeutic potential and safety considerations for the clinical use of synthetic cannabinoids

Dennis J. Sholler, Marilyn A. Huestis, Benjamin Amendolara, Ryan Vandrey, Ziva D. Cooper

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

4 Scopus citations


The phytocannabinoid Δ9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) was isolated and synthesized in the 1960s. Since then, two synthetic cannabinoids (SCBs) targeting the cannabinoid 1 (CB1R) and 2 (CB2R) receptors were approved for medical use based on clinical safety and efficacy data: dronabinol (synthetic THC) and nabilone (synthetic THC analog). To probe the function of the endocannabinoid system further, hundreds of investigational compounds were developed; in particular, agonists with (1) greater CB1/2R affinity relative to THC and (2) full CB1/2R agonist activity. This pharmacological profile may pose greater risks for misuse and adverse effects relative to THC, and these SCBs proliferated in retail markets as legal alternatives to cannabis (e.g., novel psychoactive substances [NPS], “Spice,” “K2”). These SCBs were largely outlawed in the U.S., but blanket policies that placed all SCB chemicals into restrictive control categories impeded research progress into novel mechanisms for SCB therapeutic development. There is a concerted effort to develop new, therapeutically useful SCBs that target novel pharmacological mechanisms. This review highlights the potential therapeutic efficacy and safety considerations for unique SCBs, including CB1R partial and full agonists, peripherally-restricted CB1R agonists, selective CB2R agonists, selective CB1R antagonists/inverse agonists, CB1R allosteric modulators, endocannabinoid-degrading enzyme inhibitors, and cannabidiol. We propose promising directions for SCB research that may optimize therapeutic efficacy and diminish potential for adverse events, for example, peripherally-restricted CB1R antagonists/inverse agonists and biased CB1/2R agonists. Together, these strategies could lead to the discovery of new, therapeutically useful SCBs with reduced negative public health impact.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number173059
JournalPharmacology Biochemistry and Behavior
StatePublished - Dec 2020


  • Cannabidiol
  • Cannabinoid receptor
  • Cannabinoids
  • Cannabis
  • Synthetic cannabinoids
  • Δ-Tetrahydrocannabinol

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Biochemistry
  • Toxicology
  • Pharmacology
  • Clinical Biochemistry
  • Biological Psychiatry
  • Behavioral Neuroscience


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