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What is a Cannabinoid?

There remains little doubt that cannabis, or cannabinoid, derived products remain in the spotlight. Starting in earnest just a few years ago, interest in CBD based products is as high as it has ever been. In particular, these products intersect with ubiquitous issues that have been exacerbated in 2020.

Last year, over 6 million Britons were estimated to have consumed a CBD product. By 2025, spending could hit a whopping $1bn. The dizzying range of products available ranges from the common CBD Oils and Creams, to the more ridiculous, like CBD pillows.

Cannabis leaf in cream with hands holding pipette of oil containing cannabinoid

Although many people are familiar with CBD, far fewer understand the science behind it. In particular, the range of compounds found in cannabis, known as cannabinoids.

This blog takes a look at the history and science behind cannabinoids and highlights some of the most popular cannabinoids.

What is a Cannabinoid?

A cannabinoid is a chemical substance, irrespective of its origin, that binds to receptors in the endocannabinoid system. A cannabinoid can be natural or synthetic in nature. But typically in Europe, cannabinoids are derived from the Cannabis Sativa plant. These cannabinoids are known as phytocannabinoids, as they are found within a plant.

Cannabis strains. sativa, indica and ruderalis leaves. Realistic vector illustration of the plant isolated on white background.

There are over 100 cannabinoids within the cannabis plant, of which there are 3 different species. In Europe, Sativa is the only plant legally allowed to be cultivated. Whereas, in North America, Indica is also grown. The third species of cannabis, Ruderalis, is far less common and not commercially available.

Synthetic cannabinoids are not legal in the UK as a food supplement. These cannabinoids are manufactured artificially and can be found in other countries, such as France.

Although there are lots of cannabinoids, there are two famous ones: CBD and THC.

When were Cannabinoids Discovered?

Unsurprisingly, CBD was the first discovered cannabinoid, in 1940. However, it was over 20 years later, until another one was unearthed. 

Legendary Bulgarian-born Scientist, Prof. Raphael Mechoulam isolated THC in 1964. Mechoulam realised that when smoked, THC was absorbed into the bloodstream and crossed the blood-brain barrier.

This discovery led to the realisation several decades later that the body actually produces cannabinoids.
Human brain and cannabinoid receptor

These cannabinoids bind to naturally occurring receptors called endocannabinoid receptors. This network of receptors in the cerebral cortex, cerebellum and and basal ganglia are responsible for memory, thought, pleasure, coordination and movement.

This system became known as the endocannabinoid system.

Read more about the history of cannabis and CBD.

What is the Endocannabinoid System?

The endocannabinoid system (ECS) is a network system located in the body and brain. The name is derived from the greek word for “within” – ‘ends.’ As its prefix implies, the ECS is internal. Importantly, it plays a major role in homeostasis and is composed of endocannabinoids, receptors and enzymes.

diagram of human body and cannabinoid receptors cb1 and cb2

The first ECS receptor discovered was CB1, which is activated by THC. This receptor stimulates feelings like euphoria, hunger and memory impairment when turned on.

CB2 is the other main receptor and it is expressed throughout the body. However, it is largely concentrated in the cells and tissues of the immune system.

Read more about the Endocannabinoid System.

Are Cannabinoids Legal?

The legality of cannabinoids varies depending on the cannabis compound. As a general rule, those chemicals that exhibit psychotropic effects when consumed are prohibited. Not just in the UK, but around Europe and the rest of the world.

The main cannabinoid, CBD, is legal in the UK and is widely available over the counter or online as a food supplement. Other cannabinoids like CBG, CBDa, CBL and CBC do not cause a ‘high.’ As a result, they are also legal.

In contrast, THC is a controlled substance in the UK due to its psychotropic effects.

If caught with cannabis flower or products containing THC, Britons could face up to 5 years in prison.

The less known cannabinoid, CBN is similar in composition to THC and is also considered a controlled substance.

Read more about the legality of CBD in the UK.

What are Cannabinoids used for?

Cannabinoids are available in a few different forms but predominantly as food supplements or medicines. In the UK, CBD is the most commonly used cannabis-based supplement, as it is the most abundant cannabinoid. Importantly, much more is known about CBD compared with other compounds.

There are several licensed medicines using pure CBD, including Epidiolex and Sativex. The former is available as an FDA-approved prescription medical product to treat seizures associated with epilepsy.

Interestingly, Sativex is a 1:1 ratio of CBD:THC and comes in a spray form. It is the only legal form of THC in the UK and is prescribed to treat muscular spasticity due to Multiple Sclerosis (MS).

Find CBD based products near you.

What is CBD?

Often the most abundant cannabinoid, Cannabidiol (CBD) is widely available throughout the UK as a food supplement. A recent study by the World Health Organisation noted that CBD is well tolerated and has a good safety profile. Furthermore, WHO states that there is no evidence of any public health-related issues with the use of pure CBD.

Unlike THC, CBD interacts with receptors throughout the body, which enables it to have a polypharmacological effect. This cannabinoid does not exhibit psychotropic effects, so it will not get you ‘high.’

CBD is available throughout the UK in many different forms. But the most popular product range is CBD Oil. Here, CBD is blended with a carrier oil to produce an oil to be held for several minutes under the tongue. Recently, there has been a rise in cosmetics using CBD as a core ingredient.

Read more about CBD.

What is THC?

Tetrahydrocannabinol is the other famous cannabinoid, recognised mainly for its propensity to cause the cannabis ‘high’ effect. Typically referred to as THC, it is an abundant cannabinoid in the Indica plant, with concentrations reaching up to 27%.

It is a psychotropic cannabinoid that can produce a range of effects. Normal responses are euphoria (feeling high), hunger (munchies) and clouded memory.

THC acts at the CB1 receptor, which has a particularly high expression in the brain. This is the reason why THC creates so many different psychotropic effects. However, THC remains illegal in most countries, including the UK.

Although many CBD brands incorrectly state up to 0.2% is allowable in CBD products. This is not true and this level could cause unwanted ‘high’ effects.

Read more about THC.

What is CBG?

Of late, Cannabigerol has been spoken about in very high regard. CBG is essential to the health of cannabis, as it is responsible for maintaining its health. Hence, it has been given the nickname, the ‘mother’ of cannabinoids.

Far less common in the plant than many other cannabinoids, CBG rarely reaches concentrations of greater than 1%. Like CBD, it is a non-psychotropic cannabinoid and it is legal throughout the UK.

You could even say CBG is worth its weight in gold. We’re not joking, it is literally worth its weight in gold. Purchasing a kilo of CBG could set you back up $50,000!

Read more about CBG.

What is CBC?

Cannabichromene – or CBC – is considered a member of the “big six” cannabinoids in medical research. Much like CBD, CBC does not produce a euphoric sensation on consumption.

It is hard to purchase CBC specific oils, as it is not a compound that is naturally abundant in cannabis. However, in some Broad Spectrum CBD Oil, CBC can be detected.

Read more about CBC.

What is CBL?

Referred to among scientists as Cannabicyclol, CBL is a non-psychoactive substance, which is closely related to CBC.

In fact, CBC degrades – or transforms – into CBL under certain conditions such as natural irradiation or acidic conditions. Less is known about CBL in contrast to other cannabinoids.

However, this phytocannabinoid is entirely legal and features in Broad Spectrum Dragonfly CBD Oil.

What is CBDa?

CBDA is one the most abundant cannabinoids in cannabis. The raw, acidic version of CBD, Cannabidiolic Acid is the precursor to CBD.

CBDA is also known by many people as Raw CBD, as it’s the form of CBD that is naturally found in the plant. During the extraction process – removing cannabinoids from the plant – CBDA converts into CBD.

This process is known as decarboxylation and it either happens instantly or slowly over time. During CBD Extraction or smoking raw cannabis flower, CBDA undergoes thermal decarboxylation. The compound loses its acidic carboxyl group and transforms into CBD.

Read more about CBDA.

What is CBN?

As mentioned earlier, CBN is a controlled substance in the UK and a similar chemical to THC. Cannabinol is also the family name for psychotropic compounds found in cannabis. It lends its name to the full scientific title for THC – Tetrahydrocannabinol.

It is seen as a mildly psychotropic substance and is the degraded product of THCA. If a cannabis flower is exposed to UV light for an extended period of time, THCA can convert to CBNA, which becomes CBN via decarboxylation.

However, CBN rarely occurs in plants, especially varieties of Sativa that are grown in Europe.


Dragonfly CBD is available across the UK, in a number of fantastic retailers. Stocked in Boots, Sainsbury’s, Tesco, Day Lewis Pharmacy among other independent pharmacies, Dragonfly CBD is an award winning CBD Oil made only from organically grown cannabis. 

You can find your local outlet selling Dragonfly CBD with this handy search tool. You can also buy Dragonfly CBD online.

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