The hemp market has a new it-product: delta-8 THC.
Sometimes packaged like candy, the substance is easily accessible at herb shops and convenience stores — and it gets you high.
So, what makes it different than weed?
Due to a loophole in the 2018 Farm Bill, a bipartisan legislative package that cracked open the hemp farming industry nationwide, delta-8 THC is not only legal at the federal level – it’s also unregulated.
The explosion of delta-8 products across the country, however, has prompted medical and legislative concern. Here’s what you should know about the product and what the farming industry has to say.
What is delta-8?
Delta-8 is a chemical compound found in the cannabis plant. It is psychoactive, meaning it can get you “high,” though most users describe it as a sort of “diet weed” with weaker effects than delta-9 THC, the intoxicating component found in marijuana.
The difference between the two is that while both delta-8 and delta-9 come from cannabis, delta-8 is found in the hemp variety of the plant, while delta-9 is not. That’s an important distinction because hemp is legal at the federal level whereas marijuana, which contains delta-9, is not.
The government defines hemp as any part of the cannabis sativa plant with no more than 0.3% of THC — anything over that ventures into illegality.
This legal loophole has spawned the birth of a new industry, with delta-8 products popping up behind counters at gas stations, convenience stores and herbal shops.
Much of delta-8 is not sourced directly from the plant, however. Since the compound only occurs naturally in trace amounts, most delta-8 products are refined from cannabidiol, or CBD, which is much more plentiful in hemp. These synthetic products have alarmed some legislators and medical professionals, who worry that an unregulated refinement process might result in dangerous chemicals finding their way into consumer products.
What is delta-9?
Delta-9 THC is the chemical compound responsible for that “high” feeling people get when ingesting marijuana.
Anything with a level of 0.3% delta-9 THC or higher is illegal at the federal level, though some states have lifted bans on weed and regulate the industry.
What is delta-10?
Not much is known yet about delta-10, another variety of the THC chemical compound found in the hemp plant.
Doctors and chemists are still learning about the compound and its effects, though it is known to be psychoactive. “Users have anecdotally reported feeling euphoric and more focused after consuming it,” an article from the American Chemical Society notes.
Like delta-8, it is not explicitly regulated in the 2018 Farm Bill, meaning it is was made legal on a technicality. As the production of psychoactive hemp-sourced products has boomed, delta-10 has found its way into some delta-8 products as well as being marketed on its own.
Given the sheer volume of cannabinoids that exist, some in the industry worry that regulating delta-8 and even delta-10 will be like slapping a Bandaid on a bigger wound. Farmers and backyard chemists would likely continue to find chemical compounds that skirt the regulations, Dr. Katelyn Kesheimer, a researcher at Auburn University and the Alabama Cooperative Extension System, said on NPR’s Short Wave podcast.
Is delta-8 safe?
This is the question up for debate as state legislatures rush to regulate this cottage industry.
The FDA released guidelines strongly warning against the consumption of delta-8 products in part because of the dangerous synthetics that can be used in its refinement from CBD. Synthetic conversion, the FDA said, can involve unsafe household chemicals that can be harmful if ingested or inhaled.
The agency indicated that between Dec. 1, 2020, and Feb. 28, 2022, it had received 104 reports of adverse reactions to delta-8 THC including hallucinations, vomiting, tremor, anxiety, dizziness, confusion and loss of consciousness.
Part of the risk associated with these products is the variability in labeling and the lack of potency limits. Since the lion’s share of delta-8 products are not made directly from plant extracts but instead from the cannabidiols in hemp, the concentration is much higher, sometimes causing users to ingest more than is wise even if they are basing it on previously high tolerance levels.
Delta-8 products – like smokable flower, tinctures, joints, vapes, gummies and other treats – may also contain trace amounts of delta-9 and delta-10.
The dearth of research is also something to consider, said Daniele Piomelli, a professor of anatomy and neurobiology and the director of the Center for the Study of Cannabis at the University of California, Irvine. He cautioned against using a product so unknown to scientists and physicians.
Piomelli said the lack of knowledge is partly due to the fact that the compound occurs only in small amounts in the plant itself. Though it is similar to delta-9 and produces some of the same effects, it is has a different structure.
“That small variation in the chemical structure might confer different properties to delta-8 we do not know,” Piomelli said.
The bottom line is that a lack of regulation means you don’t always know what you’re getting, increasing the safety risks.
Is delta-8 legal?
Currently, delta-8 is legal at the federal level. Some states have banned or restricted delta-8, while others are working to regulate the industry.
In May 2022, a federal appeals court upheld that delta-8 products were legal under the Farm Bill. If an unintended loophole was created, the court said, “then it is for Congress to fix its mistake.”
When the Farm Bill legalized hemp in 2018, production of CBD skyrocketed causing the price to crash, said Alex Buscher, an attorney who represents hemp farmers and producers in Colorado.
As a result, the market became oversaturated and hemp farmers began to look for something new: Enter delta-8.
The advent of delta-8 was a “lifeline for farmers” who had excess CBD biomass waiting to be used, said Jonathan Miller, who serves as general counsel for the U.S. Hemp Roundtable, an advocacy group that works on regulation within the hemp industry.
Initially, the industry was split on delta-8, Miller explained. Some advocates feared it would undermine the legitimacy of the hemp industry, which has bipartisan support even from some who are strongly against the legalization of marijuana. Farmers and businesses strapped for cash, however, were hopeful it would make up for the fall in CBD revenue.
“The toothpaste was out of the tube,” Miller said, so legislatures are having to choose between criminalization or regulation.
Kentucky was the first major victory, said Miller, who has worked with state lawmakers on legislation to regulate delta-8. The state passed a bill that requires the health cabinet to regulate delta-8 and other intoxicating cannabinoids, ensuring labeling and manufacturing processes and making sure it stays out of kids’ hands.
The U.S. Hemp Roundtable and other advocates are now shopping the framework around to other state legislatures.
“The states are moving faster than the federal government,” Buscher said. “So the federal government needs to regulate but in a way that brings the states into the fold instead of crushes all their laws and starts over.”
Miller said the FDA is moving slowly on cannabis-related issues but he’s hopeful that the 2023 Farm Bill will require the FDA to regulate CBD, which currently has no regulation at the federal level. His hope is that the bill will also include the creation of a commission with scientists, academics, federal agencies, and industry experts to determine what is and isn’t intoxicating and how it should be dealt with.
“We don’t think it’s really within Congress’ expertise right now to develop this kind of regulatory structure and the FDA has punted so we would love to see a commission put together,” Miller said.
Piomelli agreed that legislators and lawyers are not the kind of experts who should be weighing in on this issue. Instead, cannabis should be at least removed from Schedule 1, a classification that says a drug has no possible medical use. If delta-9 cannabis were freed from its current legal shackles there would be less of an incentive to produce and sell a product like delta-8, he said.
Until federal legislation is drafted, though, the decision lies with the states — creating a sort of patchwork legal framework that makes it complicated for farmers, Buscher said. In the meantime, he tells clients to err on the side of caution so they don’t send product into a state where delta-8 isn’t legal.
DEA warns against delta-8 THC-O
Meanwhile in February, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration said both delta-8 THC-O and delta-9 THC-O are illegal controlled substances. THC-O is obtained synthetically and has intoxicating properties.
Miller, of the U.S. Hemp Roundtable, said the response from the DEA has little bearing on the burgeoning delta-8 market as it refers to purely synthetic version of the product.
“It does not affect 99% of the delta-8 products currently on the market, which are derivatives,” he said in an email with USA TODAY.
Does delta-8 have THC? Does it get you high?
Delta-8 is short for delta-8-tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC. Delta-8 is psychoactive, meaning it can create that euphoric mood often associated with marijuana and it can relieve pain.
However, it is different from delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol, or delta-9 THC, which is the intoxicating component of marijuana that’s most commonly associated with the acronym THC.
Delta-8 THC is widely reported to be less potent than delta-9 THC, though most of the evidence thus far is anecdotal. Chemically, they both connect to the same brain receptor that is responsible for the high feeling, the New York Times reports, but research shows delta-8’s connection is slightly weaker, amounting to a less intense experience.
Is delta-8 the same as CBD?
No, delta-8 and CBD are not the same. Delta-8 is most often synthesized from cannabidiol, or CBD.
The chief difference is that delta-8 is psychoactive, meaning it will give you a “high” feeling, whereas most other CBD products are non-intoxicating and are meant instead to be used as therapeutics.
It is partly delta-8’s association with CBD that concerns the FDA, which warned that consumers might be confused by labeling. They might, for example, purchase delta-8 thinking it is more of a run-of-the-mill CBD product, many of which are not intoxicating and used instead to treat pain and inflammation.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: What is delta 8 and is it legal? What to know about THC-based product