Every now and then, people interested in the world of cannabis and cannabinoids will notice a sudden hype around a ‘new’ cannabinoid. Last year, the exciting new compounds in question were delta-8 THC – a supposedly legal alternative to THC that was a little less potent but still delivered a psychoactive “high” – and HHC – a minor cannabinoid found in the cannabis plant. This time around, we’re starting to see talk of a new wonder cannabinoid that is apparently 100 times more effective than CBD – H4-CBD. Of course, whether this is true remains to be seen. So, we’re taking a look at this ‘new’ cannabinoid to find out if there is any evidence to support the hype and, perhaps more importantly, whether it is safe and legal.
What is H4-CBD?
Unlike cannabidiol (CBD) which is produced in abundance naturally by the cannabis plant, H4-CBD is a synthetic cannabinoid that is manufactured in a laboratory. Far from being the first synthetic cannabinoid, other compounds manufactured in this way have become well-known either as a harmful or dangerous drug, such as spice, or as a pharmaceutical product like nabilone. But while these examples were designed to mimic THC, the main psychoactive compound in cannabis, H4-CBD is created in a slightly different way.
Also known as “tetrahydrocannabidiol” (THD) or hydrogenated CBD, H4-CBD is created by chemically altering the CBD molecule. This is done through a process called hydrogenation. Put simply, this involves adding four hydrogen atoms to the CBD molecule, creating a “hexahydro-derivative” of CBD. This process effectively changes the chemical structure of CBD causing the synthesised product to interact with our bodies in a slightly different way.
How does it interact with the body?
There has been extremely limited research into the effects of hydrogenated CBD. In fact, only one study appears to have assessed the synthetic cannabinoid. Published in 2006, the authors of the study assessed hydrogenated forms of CBD and cannabidiol dimethyl hephtyl (CBD-DMH) to evaluate “their ability to modulate the production of reactive oxygen intermediates (ROI), nitric oxide (NO), and tumour necrosis factor (TNF-alpha) by murine macrophages, and for their binding to cannabinoid receptor 1 [CB1].”
CBD is a non-competitive antagonist of CB1 receptors with a low affinity for the receptor’s primary ligand site. The compound is believed to bind to CB1’s allosteric site, altering the potency of other primary ligands. In contrast, researchers found that the hydrogenated compounds (including H4-CBD) exhibited a high affinity for CB1 receptors in mice and demonstrated bioactivities different from their original compounds. This indicates an interaction more similar to that seen between THC and CB1 receptors in the brain; however, this affinity is apparently nowhere near that exhibited by THC molecules. Furthermore, with such limited research available, it is difficult to say how, exactly, H4-CBD interacts with human CB1 receptors.
What are the effects of H4-CBD?
With alternative cannabinoids gaining popularity in a number of markets, the effects of H4-CBD are understandably being compared to those of more well-known cannabinoids – namely CBD and THC. Furthermore, the apparent similarities between the way H4-CBD and THC interact with receptors in the body may explain the cannabinoid’s reportedly mild intoxicating effects. Some claims suggest that H4-CBD is “100 times stronger than CBD”, although it is difficult to be sure what this really means.
Some consumers have likened the effects of H4-CBD products to those of a 2:1 CBD:THC cannabis product. Other reports suggest that effects the effects commonly credited to CBD are felt more strongly, in combination with a slight intoxication – milder than that experienced with THC.
On the other hand, we also found reports by some consumers indicating a much more significant psychoactive effect. What is clear is, until we have more reliable research into H4-CBD and its effects in humans, any suggested effects touted by retailers or reported by consumers should be approached with caution.
Is H4-CBD legal in the UK?
With so little information available regarding the effects and mechanisms of H4CBD, it should come as no surprise that there is also some question about the legality of the compound in many countries, including in the UK.
While hemp and many of its derivatives are legal under UK law (under certain conditions), there is no mention of H4-CBD in current UK legislation relating to cannabinoids. This isn’t surprising given the relatively unknown nature and limited availability of the compound. However, it does make place the compound in something of a grey area regarding its legality. As a synthetic derivative of CBD, it is unlikely to be covered under current rules regarding CBD, so, is it legal to sell, purchase and possess H4-CBD in the UK?
We asked Stephen Oliver, co-founder of The Canna Consultants:
“While the net is full of declarations of its legality that is, as usual, disingenuous. It is not covered by the Misuse of Drugs Act and as such is not a controlled cannabinoid under that legislation, but if we split its application into three sections it is easy to deal with:
Ingestible products are unlawful in the UK and EU under Novel Foods without question as there is yet to be an application let alone an authorisation. Vapeable products are a potential grey area but we would strongly advise clients to avoid this ingredient as the regulators are catching up and many jurisdictions are looking at a ban following the banning of HCC. For the UK, the synthesised nature and psychoactive properties would point to the Psychoactive Substances Act 2016 and we know that the ACMD [Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs] are looking at this and other ingredients.”
Mr Oliver also notes that topicals containing H4-CBD would also be considered illegal as the ingredient is simply not authorised for use in these products. Nonetheless, given the number of H4-CBD products on the market in the UK alone, it is clear that consumers – and perhaps even retailers themselves – are simply unaware of the legal status of the compound.
And uncertainty around H4-CBD is far from unique to the UK. For example, while the USA’s 2018 Farm Bill essentially legalised all cannabinoids from hemp under federal law – so long as they contained no more than 0.3% THC – some states have enacted their own laws banning other synthetically synthesised hemp-derived cannabinoids like delta-8 THC.
What is clear about H4-CBD is that much more research is needed to establish the true effects and, most importantly safety, of this ‘new’ cannabinoid. Until then, the use of any products containing the compound surely cannot be deemed safe or responsible.