This year, delta-8 THC, a new marijuana cousin, erupted onto the national scene. It’s advertised as “weed light” or “the superior version of THC” on the cannabis internet. It sold as a vape or an edible, and the high is similar to a moderate form of traditional marijuana.
In terms of chemical structure—three carbon rings, a long tail, and several hangers-on—and psychological effects, delta-8 THC is remarkably similar to delta-9 THC, the principal active element in marijuana.
They largely differ in terms of how they make. The raw marijuana plant contains Delta-9. Delta-8, on the other hand, comes from hemp, a type of cannabis plant that has been developed to be free of psychoactive THC and is used to make fiber, biofuel, and bioplastics.
With Senator Mitch McConnell’s help, Congress included a provision to the annual Farm Bill in 2018 that allowed hemp production, which had previously prohibited due to its resemblance to “hot” cannabis. “It specifically enables the transport of hemp-derived products across state lines,” according to the Brookings Institute.
Hemp cannot now include any THC, according to the 2018 law. (Low levels of delta-8 can found in recreational marijuana plants.) It may, however, include cannabidiol (CBD), a mildly psychoactive but non-intoxicating cannabinoid.
As hemp growers learned to extract and advertise CBD as a cure-all. The adoption of the 2018 bill resulted in a surge in CBD popularity over the last several years. However, this is only the first in a series of probable chemical reactions.
A lab can make delta-8 THC using CBD as a precursor, which is now considered a “hemp-derived product.” Delta-8 exists in a legal grey area for the time being because federal rules exist on delta-9, a molecule that is just different enough. It’s also cheap because it’s not taxed, prompting marijuana growers to seek regulations to safeguard their businesses.
According to Leafly, a cannabis-industry publication, the hemp to CBD to delta-8 loophole is likely to be temporary.
At least five states have already announced marijuana-related rules, ranging from classifying the drug to designating new categories of marijuana-like compounds. It’s also likely that THC lookalikes are subject to existing federal law. Chemicals that are substantially similar to prohibited counterparts—in this case, delta-9 THC—are subject to the same laws under a statute created in the 1980s to govern “designer pharmaceuticals.” According to a lawyer who works in the hemp industry, the federal Drug Enforcement Agency is likely making instructions for state officials.
In the meanwhile, use delta-8 with caution, just as you would any other unregulated chemical.
“The problem is that consumers don’t know what they’re buying,” says Varun Vohra, a toxicologist and head of Wayne State University’s Michigan Poison Center. He’s started hearing about children who got into delta-8-containing candies or other edibles and ended up in the hospital.
He said the symptoms are similar to those of a typical edible.” They’ll have a reasonably fast heart rate, then they’ll become a more lethargic, potentially uncoordinated movement, and then they’ll become further drowsy, possibly having problems breathing.”
For years, there have been problems with children (and pets) eating marijuana candies or cookies, and ideally, you’ve learned to keep them out of reach. The issue is that items labeled as CBD may contain delta-8, which a consumer may not recognize.
“I’ve come across cases where people felt they were buying pure CBD,” Vohra says. “CBD is not psychoactive, according to the general people. Then it discovered that certain items included residues of delta-8.”
Another issue for users is that even items labeled as delta-8 may have more of the active ingredient than stated, putting them at risk of unwittingly overdoing it. Of course, the same is true for THC from plants, but the delta-8 industry is newer and unregulated.
According to Vohra, because emergency rooms treating a patient rarely undertake extensive confirmatory testing to separate delta-8 from delta-9, there is very little accurate information on how many people truly suffer bad reactions to delta-8. Not for clinical reasons, he argues, but “as a macro issue, in terms of, we want people to know what they’re getting, and be getting what they think they’re getting.”
If you live in a state where marijuana is legal, you should get delta-8 from a licensed retailer. (Alternatively, you could buy marijuana.) It’s all up to you.) Although vetting an unregulated product is difficult by definition, you should look for brands that connect to a Certificate of Analysis, which is an independent lab test of the contents. If you have any issues, Vohra recommends calling 1-800-222-1222, which will have qualified toxicologists on call and provide general guidance to the public, not just emergency care.