If you’ve stood in a neighborhood bodega line in the last year, you’ve probably seen some form of Delta-8 THC. The compound is being marketed in drinks, tinctures, edibles and vape cartridges, and they are available to any person of any age with absolutely no regulatory oversight. Are these products dangerous? How did they become so prominent seemingly overnight? We try to answer your questions about this strange new drug and how it could affect you.
What Is It?
Delta-8 THC is an isomer of the more familiar Delta-9 THC, the main psychoactive compound in cannabis. This means that the two molecules share the same formula but have different structures. This structural difference makes Delta-8 THC somewhat less psychoactive than its sibling. Users report a similar but more mellow, less potent high than with traditional THC extracts. It reportedly promotes relaxation and has calming effects, although none of these claims have been tested in a lab.
This cannabinoid is found occurring naturally in small concentrations in marijuana, but most of the Delta-8 THC available on the market is created synthetically by processing it from CBD sourced from hemp plants. The CBD is treated with a chemical solvent and left to convert into Delta-8 THC.
Whether the cannabinoid has therapeutic effects has not been determined, but Raphael Mechoulam, a professor of medicinal chemistry at Hebrew University of Jerusalem and former president of the International Cannabinoid Research Society, told reporters that Delta-8 THC is more stable than Delta-9 THC and could potentially offer even better therapeutic effects than the more familiar cannabinoid.
How Is It Legal?
Delta-8 THC is still in a gray area, legally speaking. It’s currently legal in most states because it’s synthesized from hemp-sourced CBD. Hemp was legalized with the signing of the 2018 Farm Bill. Language in the bill made a distinction between hemp and marijuana, legalizing the former and defining it as cannabis with less than 0.3 percent Delta-9 THC. Since Delta-8 THC isn’t specifically banned, lawmakers haven’t yet caught up with it.
CBD was expected to be in a similar boat when the Farm Bill went into effect, but the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) almost immediately placed limitations on its sale and distribution. The agency was able to do this because CBD is the active ingredient in the FDA-approved pharmaceutical drug Epidiolex—a medication used to treat a rare form of epilepsy. Federal law prohibits the sale of over-the-counter medications and supplements containing active ingredients from pharmaceutical drugs for safety reasons. But those limitations don’t apply to Delta-8 THC, since it doesn’t appear in any FDA-approved drugs.
The compound isn’t legal everywhere, however. Delta-8 THC has been banned for sale in at least 14 states in recent months. Lawmakers have voiced concerns over the lack of research on the subject as well as its availability to children.
In New Mexico Delta-8 THC is completely legal and widely available. Products containing Delta-8 THC are available in many privately-owned gas stations and marijuana supply shops. They can also be found easily online. The problem is that these products are often coming from less-than-reputable sources, and their safety is still in question.
Is It Safe?
This is a tough question to answer since there have been no large-scale clinical studies of the effects of this newly popularized compound. Since it’s a naturally occurring compound found in cannabis, it’s highly unlikely that it will cause any major health problems or these would have become evident already. However, long-term use of the compound at high concentrations has not been observed yet, and any conclusions made would be premature.
What is concerning is that, as an unregulated drug, Delta-8 THC rubs up against the same issue that CBD has over the past few years: It’s hard to tell if what’s on the label is actually what’s in the bottle. The labeling accuracy related to the content of Delta-8 THC is only one concern. Without oversight and quality control, manufacturing and packaging processes can add impurities and toxins to the product inadvertently, possibly harming consumers on the back end. At this point in time, it is impossible to confirm what is actually in any of these products.
And even if the product is what it says it is, there’s no guarantee that the manufacturer properly removed the solvents or acids used to convert CBD into Delta-8 THC. These caustic chemicals are toxic when ingested.
That being said, there have been no reports of injuries or illness associated with Delta-8 THC, despite the large number of warnings that have been made by health experts and cannabis advocates. Even in Albuquerque, it’s fairly simple to find cartridges or drinks infused with the drug on shelves in smoke shops and gas stations.
The Future of Delta-8
Thankfully, it’s only a few more months until the adult-use cannabis market opens its doors in New Mexico, so consumers around the state will hopefully feel less of a need to experiment with Delta-8 THC.
However, it’s important to note that, while there are numerous concerns to be had with consuming the products currently on the market, outright damning the cannabinoid at this early stage of research would also be a bad idea. Most experts and policymakers seem unconcerned with the safety of the compound itself.
The bottom line—as is usually the case with marijuana—is that more research is needed before policies can be set in stone. “Very few people have taken pure Delta-8 and reported it. People use it for a long list of ailments, but there are very few clinical trials,” Mechoulam said.