There has been a lot of talk about a drug called delta-8 over the past few years. In the United States, searches for the term increased by more than 850 percent between 2020 and 2021, especially in states where recreational marijuana is illegal. Approximately 16 percent of regular marijuana users also use delta-8, according to a recent study.
It is being touted as the next biggest thing in cannabis: a gentler, and perhaps more importantly, legal high that offers relaxation and pain relief without causing anxiety or confusion.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration, delta-8 has caused thousands of accidental poisonings.
It depends on what's actually in a product labeled delta-8 to determine if regulators are being too cautious or cannabis advocates are overhyping the phenomenon.
Delta-8 may cause a milder high than marijuana, according to some early research. Since delta-8 is unregulated, the majority of products on the market don’t resemble what's tested in a lab and can be contaminated with other cannabinoids and heavy metals. Many experts avoid using it because of this.
Delta-8: what is it?
The delta-8 in delta-8-THC refers to marijuana's primary psychoactive ingredient, THC.
The most common form of THC in cannabis plants is delta-9-THC, which is almost identical to delta-8-THC in its chemical structure. The molecules act very similarly in the body because of their similarity. As a result, they both bind to the same brain receptors, particularly the cannabinoid type 1 (or CB1) receptor, which produces the high when smoking a joint or eating a weed gummy.
Delta-8, however, has a slightly weaker attachment to the CB1 receptor than delta-9, which tempers its effects.
In order to achieve the same effect as delta-9-THC, you need to give a higher dose of delta-8-THC, said Linda Klumpers, co-founder of Verdient Science, a cannabis-based consulting company.
What makes people use it?
Delta-8 users reported feeling less paranoid, less anxious, and having a "nicer" high than delta-9-THC, according to a survey. The most common experiences were relaxation, euphoria, and pain relief when using delta-8. However, to a lesser extent than with regular marijuana, people reported having trouble concentrating, having problems with short-term memory, and experiencing altered senses of time.
“When we asked participants to compare delta-8 to delta-9, they felt that it was less intense,” said Jessica Kruger, clinical assistant professor of health behavior at the University at Buffalo. Compared to delta-9, when they used it, they felt like they had things like 'couch lock' or didn't feel like getting up and doing anything, whereas when they used delta-8, they felt like they could still be productive.
According to Kruger and Klumpers, delta-8 is unlikely to affect people differently than delta-9. Experts say the reason is likely that there is less of the drug in the CB1 receptors, which means people are less likely to experience distressing symptoms when they get over the top.
Do you know if it's legal?
Delta-8's legal status and milder high are two of its main attractions for users.
During the 2018 Farm Bill, hemp was made legal, which led to the rise of Delta-8. Hemp and marijuana are both types of cannabis plants, but marijuana produces delta-9-THC, while hemp does not. If one type of tomato could get you high, hemp and marijuana would be like two types of tomato plants.
According to the Farm Bill, hemp could be grown legally if the THC content was less than 0.3 percent. But Kent Vrana, a professor of pharmacology at Penn State, said the authors of the bill made an oversight: They defined THC specifically as delta-9-THC, which remains illegal federally. Delta-8 was born as a result of that definition.
In hemp and marijuana plants, delta-8-THC is only detectable in trace amounts, but manufacturers have discovered a way to produce it by using CBD, another notable chemical found in cannabis plants. As CBD is legal, they assert, delta-8 is legal as well, because hemp plants contain large amounts of CBD.
It's the manufacturers' argument that since CBD can be extracted from hemp, even though it isn't THC, it's still hemp, said Eric Leas, a professor of public health at the University of California, San Diego. As a result, delta-8 is chemically THC, but legally hemp.
Over the internet and in stores, delta-8-THC is commonly added to gummies and vape cartridges. In spite of this, as the products are unregulated, what's on the label can differ from what's inside, both in terms of delta-8 potency and unanticipated ingredients, such as delta-9.
Do you think it's dangerous?
The biggest worry for many public health experts with regards to delta-8 in the United States is the lack of proper regulation. This was highlighted by several studies, including one conducted by the US Cannabis Council which found contaminants within products. December also saw a paper published by scientists at the University of Rochester, which discovered that none of the 27 delta-8 items examined contained the labelled amount and all contained potential hazardous impurities appearing from their manufacturing process. These included other cannabinoids such as delta-9-THC and metals like lead and mercury.
I don't think delta-8 by itself is more dangerous than delta-9, but how it's made and who sells it scares me. It's unregulated, and because it's synthetic there are a lot of possibilities for problems.
In September, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention issued a health advisory regarding delta-8 due to these concerns. In May, the Food and Drug Administration issued a similar warning after receiving 104 reports of adverse events related to delta-8 use, including hallucinations, vomiting, tremors, anxiety, dizziness, confusion, and loss of consciousness.
Between January 2021 and February 2022, national poison control centers received over 2,000 calls about delta-8, 41 percent of which involved children accidentally ingesting products with delta-8. One of those cases resulted in death.
When used at high concentrations, THC can cause chronic vomiting, psychosis, and addiction. These poisonings may be caused by contaminants or consuming large amounts of delta-8 or unlabeled delta-9.
14 states are taking action on unregulated forms of THC, including delta-8 and delta-10. Surprisingly, even states where recreational marijuana is legal have banned it, e.g. Colorado and New York. Dr Leas claims that the regulatory system for recreational marijuana keeps it safer than delta-8, as manufacturers must meet certain public health standards set in place. This includes licensure for distributors, age restriction checks, product labeling with potency and dose information, and confirmation requirements for these labels - all of which do not exist for delta-8-THC.
In this article, all of the experts interviewed, including those supportive of legalizing marijuana, recommended against using delta-8 because there is no way to ensure its safety. But they also suggested regulating delta-8 instead of banning it.
A pharmacologist and toxicologist, Dr. Vrana said, "the regulation is: 'What's in it?' You have every right to know exactly what you're taking."