If you haven’t heard of delta-8 THC, you will soon. In the past few years, this cannabinoid has gone from relative obscurity to a mainstream marketing bonanza. Forbes magazine reports that sales of delta-8 THC products skyrocketed to two billion dollars in 2021 and 2022.
Delta-8 is marketed as a “kinder, gentler” form of THC and touted as being entirely legal when it is derived from hemp. As of this writing, you can buy delta-8 THC products in the state of Florida without qualifying for medical marijuana.
But should you?
There is a range of issues surrounding delta-8 THC products, including effectiveness, purity, safety, and actual legality. To address these topics, it’s best to begin with some background… and a brief chemistry lesson.
How Does Delta-8 Work?
Delta-8-tetrahydrocannabinol, a.k.a. delta-8 THC, is one of the more than 100 known cannabinoids that are found naturally in marijuana and hemp. It is closely related to the more familiar delta-9 THC, and the two cannabinoids share a similar molecular structure. Chemistry texts describe delta-8 as a “positional isomer of delta-9,” with the explanation that:
Delta-8 THC and delta-9 THC both contain a double bond in their molecular chain, but the location is different. Delta-8 THC has the bond in the 8th carbon chain while delta-9 contains it in the 9th carbon chain.
This slight difference in carbon chain position results in delta-8 having a weaker cannabinoid CB1 receptor affinity as compared to delta-9.
If you aren’t into molecular biochemistry, the simple explanation is that the human nervous system doesn’t absorb delta-8 as easily as delta-9, but it does produce similar psychoactive effects. Many sources agree that delta-8 is about two-thirds as potent as an equivalent dose of delta-9.
Will Delta-8 Get You High?
Delta-8 is found in both marijuana and hemp in very small quantities, typically around .01 to .03 percent. An individual consuming marijuana products will ingest very small amounts of delta-8, but any effects of this cannabinoid would be overshadowed by the far more abundant influence of delta-9. Marijuana historically averaged around 4% delta-9 THC, but may contain up to 15% in modern strains of flower.
The delta-8 products now on the market are almost universally made from hemp for reasons of legality, which we’ll get into a bit later. But delta-8 producers aren’t packaging leaf and flower. The extremely low levels of delta-8 in natural hemp would give you a headache or a stomach ache long before a high.
For example, based on the average potencies of hemp and garden-variety marijuana, you’d need to smoke at least 35 times as much hemp as marijuana to get a similar reaction (based on a joint of 30 grams; hemp containing 9mg delta-8 per joint and two-thirds equivalent delta-9 potency; marijuana containing 200mg delta-9 per joint).
How Is Delta-8 Made?
Because natural hemp won’t get you high, all products marketed as hemp-based delta-8 are synthetically derived from CBD under laboratory conditions. Concentrated extracts are typically packaged as oils for vaping, infused into edibles, or added to smoked products. If you come across a delta-8 joint or an edible, it is almost certainly a product containing the synthetic form of the cannabinoid.
There are a number of methods used to convert CBD into delta-8, all of which involve a combination of solvents, acids, and washing solutions. And while some mainstream laboratories use strict protocols to ensure safety and purity, there are no guarantees. Turns out that synthesizing delta-8 isn’t all that complicated.
As a blogger at CannabisTech explains:
Home chemists have repeatedly demonstrated how simple the CBD to delta-8 conversion is. With what is essentially a home-chemistry kit and easy-to-source solvents and acids, CBD isolate transforms into a high-inducing compound.
The author goes on to add:
Unfortunately, this is also the downside to delta-8 THC. Too many garage chemists and amateurs are creating synthetic cannabinoids, and many of their products may have residual chemicals.
Is Delta-8 Safe?
The U.S. Food & Drug and Food Administration (FDA) has weighed in on the subject of delta-8 safety. An online warning statement notes that “it is important for consumers to be aware that delta-8 THC products have not been evaluated or approved by the FDA for safe use in any context” and that these products “may be marketed in ways that put the public health at risk.”
Drilling down into the details of the FDA warning, the talking points include:
- The need to keep products away from children
- Delta-8’s potential intoxicating effects
- Reports of infrequent adverse reactions (2,600 cases nationally between January 2022 and February 2023, with 45% requiring medical attention and nearly half related to unintentional exposure to young children)
In context, these warnings aren’t particularly dire, though they do highlight concerns made by others that some THC-8 products are marketed in ways that appear appealing to children. What is more widely troubling is the fact that THC-8 products are not currently regulated or tested, which allows for significant variation in the content and quality of products on the market.
A recent report in Chemical Engineering News addresses the issue of product quality in an article titled, “Delta-8-THC Craze Concerns Chemists.” The author writes:
With no regulatory oversight and limited laboratory testing, most products sold as delta-8-THC are not actually pure delta-8-THC. Such products typically contain a high percentage of delta-8-THC and small amounts of other cannabinoids, including delta-9-THC, and reaction by-products. Some of the cannabinoids are not naturally found in cannabis. In most cases, nothing is known about the health effects of these impurities.
Dr. Ziva Cooper, director of the UCLA Cannabis Research Initiative, is quoted as saying:
We don’t know about quality control with respect to how these products are made. When people think they are taking delta-8 THC it could be there’s actually quite a bit of delta-9 THC in there.
The Chemical Engineering News article then goes on to quote several more industry experts on the subject. Michael Coffin, who is the chief scientist at a California-based cannabis manufacturing firm, says his concerns are not with the safety of THC products extracted from hemp and cannabis, but with improper manufacturing techniques that result in a range of by-products and unwanted compounds.
Kyle Boyar, a staff research associate at the University of California San Diego’s Center for Medicinal Cannabis Research, is quoted in the article warning that many involved in the manufacture of delta-8-THC are not fully versed in safe manufacturing protocols, and are not taking the time to ensure quality purity.
A lot of irresponsible production is going on in the sense that most of these people are getting their information from online forums, and many of them aren’t necessarily trained chemists.
The article cites a range of specific improper manufacturing processes that create safety issues and lead to product impurities. The author also makes a case for regulation to ensure product quality and content. Given the current difficulty of testing products for all possible impurities, the author suggests that the better approach to quality control would be to require manufacturers to disclose what chemicals they use to make delta-8-THC and what compounds are in their final products.
Is Delta-8 Legal?
The legal status of delta-8 THC products remains in flux. This began with the passing of the 2018 Farm Bill that green-lighted the cultivation of hemp so long as it contained less than 0.3% delta-9 THC. This opened the door to the recent CBD craze. As that market became saturated, hemp producers found new markets by synthesizing products such as delta-8 THC and THC-O, which we have described elsewhere.
Based on the assumed legality of substances synthesized from hemp, delta-8 vaping products and delta-8-infused cigarettes started cropping up online and at convenience stores and gas stations. This proliferation of products seemingly ignored the fact that products synthesized from hemp that contained more than .03% THC remained illegal based on the 1986 Federal Analogue Act. This bill stipulates that products made to resemble controlled substances are themselves controlled substances. The loophole in this equation exploited by retailers was the argument that it was limitations on delta-9 THC content in hemp that was specified in the Farm Bill, not delta-8.
After a period of ambiguity, and a federal court of appeals ruling that seemed to affirm the legality of delta-8 products, the DEA later clarified its position by stating that any substance equivalent to a Schedule I substance was subject to the same federal laws.
A simple explanation of the legality of delta-8 THC synthesized from legal hemp comes from Christopher Hudalla, the chief scientific officer at ProVerde Laboratories, who is quoted in Chemical Engineering News as saying:
Like making methamphetamine from cold medicine, just because the starting materials are legal does not make the resulting product legal.
While federal laws regarding the sale of delta-8 are currently unenforced for the most part, states have set their own rules. As of May 2023, it is legal to purchase delta-8 products in Florida and 28 other states. These products are often sold over the counter without any requirement for medical marijuana qualification. Meanwhile, 21 states have now placed restrictions or bans on the distribution and sale of delta-8 products.
Should You Try Delta-8?
A quick Internet search will yield both warnings and endorsements of delta-8. While much of the positive press comes from sources involved in the sale of these products, there are also recommendations that seem less commercial-driven.
A typical critique of the delta-8 experience is found in the online wellness publication Inverse, which states:
Compared with [delta-9] THC, delta-8 THC appears to provide similar relaxation and pain relief levels. While it seems to cause slightly lower levels of euphoria, it also seems to produce fewer cognitive distortions such as an altered sense of time, short-term memory issues, and difficulty concentrating.
A small-scale study that administered delta-8 to frequent marijuana users concluded:
Hemp-derived delta-8 THC and delta-9 THC from cannabis display similar impairment profiles, suggesting that recent use of delta-8 THC products may carry the same risks as cannabis products.
Results from another small-scale online survey of delta-8 consumers indicated:
- Patterns of delta-8 THC use had both similarities with and differences from the use of delta-9 THC cannabis and products
- Administration methods were primarily edibles (64%) and vaping concentrates (48%)
- About half of the participants (51%) used delta-8-THC to treat a range of health and medical conditions, primarily anxiety or panic attacks (69%), stress (52%), depression or bipolar disorder (46%), and chronic pain (41%)
- Participants compared delta-8-THC very favorably with both delta-9-THC and pharmaceutical drugs and reported substantial levels of substitution for both
Ultimately, the current issues and concerns surrounding delta-8 THC may be less about its pharmacological effects and more about the unknowns related to the purity and potency of available products. Some good advice for anyone considering delta-8 THC comes from Dr. Ziva Cooper, who warns:
Consumers should pay attention to what’s regulated, and what’s unregulated, and pay attention to labels. And they should ask their medical professionals about these products and ask for guidance in their use.