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How Delta-8 THC Works, and Why Experts Are Worried About It
This popular cannabis product claims to be milder than regular marijuana. But is it legal? And is it safe?
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By Dana G. Smith
Over the past few years, you may have seen headlines about a drug called delta-8. Google searches for the term grew by more than 850 percent in the United States between 2020 and 2021, particularly in states where recreational marijuana is illegal. According to one recent study, 16 percent of regular marijuana users also use delta-8.
Some claim it’s the next big thing in cannabis: a gentler and, perhaps more crucially, legal high that offers relaxation and pain relief without the anxiety or fuzzy-headedness of regular weed.
But recent warnings from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration say delta-8 is a potentially dangerous drug that’s resulted in thousands of accidental poisonings.
Is this a case of regulators being too cautious or of cannabis advocates getting too hyped? The answer depends on what’s actually in a product labeled delta-8.
Some early research supports the claim that delta-8 could cause a milder high than traditional marijuana. But because the drug is unregulated, the vast majority of delta-8 products on the market don’t resemble what’s tested in a lab and can be contaminated with other cannabinoids and heavy metals. As a result, many experts advise against its use.
What is delta-8?
Technically, delta-8 means delta-8-THC, as in the THC that’s the primary psychoactive ingredient in marijuana.
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’ similarity means that delta-8 and delta-9 act very similarly in the body. Most crucially, they both bind to the same receptors in the brain, particularly one called the cannabinoid type 1 (or CB1) receptor, which produces the high you experience when you smoke a joint or eat a weed gummy.
However, research suggests delta-8 has a slightly weaker attachment to the CB1 receptor than delta-9, which tempers its effect.
“Delta-8-THC is less potent than delta-9-THC,” said Linda Klumpers, co-founder of Verdient Science, a pharmacology consulting company that specializes in cannabis-based medicines. “If you want to achieve the same effect as delta-9-THC, you need to give a higher dose of delta-8.”
Why are people using it?
A survey of delta-8 users backs this up, with respondents reporting feeling less paranoid, less anxious and having a “nicer” high compared with delta-9-THC. The most common experiences when using delta-8 were relaxation, euphoria and pain relief. People did report having some difficulty concentrating, problems with short-term memory and an altered sense of time, although not to the same extent as with regular marijuana.
“When we asked participants to compare delta-8 to delta-9, they felt that it was less intense,” said Jessica Kruger, a clinical assistant professor of health behavior at the University at Buffalo, who led the survey. “They remarked how they could use delta-8 and still be productive, whereas when they use delta-9 they would say that they had things like ‘couch lock’ or didn’t feel like getting up and doing anything.”
Dr. Kruger and Dr. Klumpers said it’s unlikely that delta-8 has different effects than delta-9. Instead, experts said, the explanation is probably that there’s less of the drug in the CB1 receptors, so people are less likely to experience the more distressing symptoms that can occur when they get too high.
Is it legal?
The purportedly milder high is one of delta-8’s main attractions for users. The other is its legal status.
Delta-8’s rise started with the passing of the 2018 Farm Bill, which made hemp legal. Hemp and marijuana are both types of cannabis plants, but marijuana produces delta-9-THC and hemp doesn’t. Think of hemp and marijuana like two varieties of tomato plants, if one type of tomato could get you high.
The Farm Bill stated that hemp could be grown legally as long as it contained less than 0.3 percent THC. But, said Kent Vrana, a professor of pharmacology at Penn State, the authors of the bill made an oversight: They defined THC specifically as delta-9-THC, which is still illegal federally. With that definition, a market for delta-8 was born.
Delta-8-THC is detectable only in trace amounts in both hemp and marijuana plants, but manufacturers have figured out a way to produce it from a third notable chemical in cannabis plants, CBD. CBD is present in large quantities in hemp plants, and because CBD is legal, they assert, so is delta-8.
“What these manufacturers are arguing is that since you can extract CBD from hemp, and CBD is not THC, that it’s still considered hemp,” said Eric Leas, an assistant professor of public health at the University of California, San Diego. In other words, delta-8 is chemically THC, but legally hemp.
The manufactured delta-8-THC is typically added to gummies and vape cartridges and sold legally over the internet and in stores. But because the products are unregulated, what’s on the label can differ from what’s inside the package, both in terms of the potency of delta-8 and other unanticipated ingredients, like delta-9.
Is it dangerous?
The lack of regulation in the United States around delta-8 is the biggest concern for many public health experts. Several studies, including one by the US Cannabis Council, have found contaminants in delta-8 products. In another paper published in December by scientists at the University of Rochester, none of the 27 delta-8 products tested contained the amount of delta-8 they claimed. What’s more, all 27 had potentially harmful byproducts, presumably from the manufacturing process, including other cannabinoids, like delta-9-THC, and heavy metals, including lead and mercury.
“I don’t think delta-8 by itself is more dangerous than delta-9, but the way it’s made and who is selling it just scares the heck out of me,” Dr. Vrana said. “It’s unregulated, and because it’s synthetic there are plenty of opportunities for things to go wrong.”
Because of these concerns, the C.D.C. issued a health advisory about delta-8 in September. The F.D.A. put out a similar warning in May after receiving 104 reports of adverse events from delta-8 use, including hallucinations, vomiting, tremor, anxiety, dizziness, confusion and loss of consciousness.
Similarly, national poison control centers handled over 2,000 calls about delta-8 between January 2021 and February 2022, 41 percent of which involved children accidentally ingesting products with delta-8 in them. One of those cases resulted in death.
These poisonings could be caused by contaminants, or consuming large quantities of delta-8 or unlabeled delta-9. THC can cause chronic vomiting, psychosis and addiction when used at high concentrations.
Facing a lack of federal regulation, 14 states have banned either delta-8 or all unregulated forms of THC (there’s a delta-10, too). Surprisingly, this includes several states where recreational marijuana is legal, including Colorado and New York. According to Dr. Leas, the regulatory system for recreational marijuana makes it a safer product than delta-8. He points to manufacturing quality checks as important public health standards. In theory, the licensing of distributors, existing age limits and labeling rules about potency and recommended dose of a product — plus confirmation requirements for those labels — should protect consumers. None of those protections exist for delta-8-THC.
All the experts interviewed for this article, including those supportive of legalizing marijuana, recommended against using delta-8, because there is no way to ensure its safety. However, they also said the best solution is not to ban delta-8 but to regulate it.
“Regulation, for me as a pharmacologist and toxicologist, is: ‘What’s in it?’” said Dr. Vrana. “You have every right to know precisely what you’re taking.”
Dana Smith is an award-winning health and science writer based in Durham, N.C.
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5 Things to Know about Delta-8 Tetrahydrocannabinol – Delta-8 THC
Delta-8 tetrahydrocannabinol, also known as delta-8 THC, is a psychoactive substance found in the Cannabis sativa plant, of which marijuana and hemp are two varieties. Delta-8 THC is one of over 100 cannabinoids produced naturally by the cannabis plant but is not found in significant amounts in the cannabis plant. As a result, concentrated amounts of delta-8 THC are typically manufactured from hemp-derived cannabidiol (CBD).
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. They may be marketed in ways that put the public health at risk and should especially be kept out of reach of children and pets.
Here are 5 things you should know about delta-8 THC to keep you and those you care for safe from products that may pose serious health risks:
1. Delta-8 THC products have not been evaluated or approved by the FDA for safe use and may be marketed in ways that put the public health at risk.
The FDA is aware of the growing concerns surrounding delta-8 THC products currently being sold online and in stores. These products have not been evaluated or approved by the FDA for safe use in any context. Some concerns include variability in product formulations and product labeling, other cannabinoid and terpene content, and variable delta-8 THC concentrations. Additionally, some of these products may be labeled simply as “hemp products,” which may mislead consumers who associate “hemp” with “non-psychoactive.” Furthermore, the FDA is concerned by the proliferation of products that contain delta-8 THC and are marketed for therapeutic or medical uses, although they have not been approved by the FDA. Selling unapproved products with unsubstantiated therapeutic claims is not only a violation of federal law, but also can put consumers at risk, as these products have not been proven to be safe or effective. This deceptive marketing of unproven treatments raises significant public health concerns because patients and other consumers may use them instead of approved therapies to treat serious and even fatal diseases.
2. The FDA has received adverse event reports involving delta-8 THC-containing products.
The FDA received 104 reports of adverse events in patients who consumed delta-8 THC products between December 1, 2020, and February 28, 2022. Of these 104 adverse event reports:
- 77% involved adults, 8% involved pediatric patients less than 18 years of age, and 15% did not report age.
- 55% required intervention (e.g., evaluation by emergency medical services) or hospital admission.
- 66% described adverse events after ingestion of delta-8 THC-containing food products (e.g., brownies, gummies).
- Adverse events included, but were not limited to: hallucinations, vomiting, tremor, anxiety, dizziness, confusion, and loss of consciousness.
National poison control centers received 2,362 exposure cases of delta-8 THC products between January 1, 2021 (i.e., date that delta-8 THC product code was added to database), and February 28, 2022. Of the 2,362 exposure cases:
- 58% involved adults, 41% involved pediatric patients less than 18 years of age, and 1% did not report age.
- 40% involved unintentional exposure to delta-8 THC and 82% of these unintentional exposures affected pediatric patients.
- 70% required health care facility evaluation, of which 8% resulted in admission to a critical care unit; 45% of patients requiring health care facility evaluation were pediatric patients.
- One pediatric case was coded with a medical outcome of death.
3. Delta-8 THC has psychoactive and intoxicating effects.
Delta-8 THC has psychoactive and intoxicating effects, similar to delta-9 THC (i.e., the component responsible for the “high” people may experience from using cannabis). The FDA is aware of media reports of delta-8 THC products getting consumers “high.” The FDA is also concerned that delta-8 THC products likely expose consumers to much higher levels of the substance than are naturally occurring in hemp cannabis raw extracts. Thus, historical use of cannabis cannot be relied upon in establishing a level of safety for these products in humans.
4. Delta-8 THC products often involve use of potentially harmful chemicals to create the concentrations of delta-8 THC claimed in the marketplace.
The natural amount of delta-8 THC in hemp is very low, and additional chemicals are needed to convert other cannabinoids in hemp, like CBD, into delta-8 THC (i.e., synthetic conversion). Concerns with this process include:
- Some manufacturers may use potentially unsafe household chemicals to make delta-8 THC through this chemical synthesis process. Additional chemicals may be used to change the color of the final product. The final delta-8 THC product may have potentially harmful by-products (contaminants) due to the chemicals used in the process, and there is uncertainty with respect to other potential contaminants that may be present or produced depending on the composition of the starting raw material. If consumed or inhaled, these chemicals, including some used to make (synthesize) delta-8 THC and the by-products created during synthesis, can be harmful.
- Manufacturing of delta-8 THC products may occur in uncontrolled or unsanitary settings, which may lead to the presence of unsafe contaminants or other potentially harmful substances.
5. Delta-8 THC products should be kept out of the reach of children and pets.
Manufacturers are packaging and labeling these products in ways that may appeal to children (gummies, chocolates, cookies, candies, etc.). These products may be purchased online, as well as at a variety of retailers, including convenience stores and gas stations, where there may not be age limits on who can purchase these products. As discussed above, there have been numerous poison control center alerts involving pediatric patients who were exposed to delta-8 THC-containing products. Additionally, animal poison control centers have indicated a sharp overall increase in accidental exposure of pets to these products. Keep these products out of reach of children and pets.
Why is the FDA notifying the public about delta-8 THC?
A combination of factors has led the FDA to provide consumers with this information. These factors include:
- An uptick in adverse event reports to the FDA and the nation’s poison control centers.
- Marketing, including online marketing of products, that is appealing to children.
- Concerns regarding contamination due to methods of manufacturing that may in some cases be used to produce marketed delta-8 THC products.
The FDA is actively working with federal and state partners to further address the concerns related to these products and monitoring the market for product complaints, adverse events, and other emerging cannabis-derived products of potential concern. The FDA will warn consumers about public health and safety issues and take action, when necessary, when FDA-regulated products violate the law.
How to report complaints and cases of accidental exposure or adverse events:
If you think you are having a serious side effect that is an immediate danger to your health, call 9-1-1 or go to your local emergency room. Health care professionals and patients are encouraged to report complaints and cases of accidental exposure and adverse events to the FDA’s MedWatch Safety Information and Adverse Event Reporting Program:
- Call an FDA Consumer Complaint Coordinator if you wish to speak directly to a person about your problem.
- Complete an electronic Voluntary MedWatch form online or call 1-800-332-1088 to request a reporting form, then complete and return to the address on the form, or submit by fax to 1-800-FDA-0178.
- Complete a paper Voluntary MedWatch form and mail it to the FDA.
- To report adverse events in animals to the FDA’s Center for Veterinary Medicine, please download and submit Form FDA 1932a found at: www.fda.gov/ReportAnimalAE.
For more information about Delta-8 THC: CDC HEALTH ALERT NETWORK (HAN)
The American Association of Poison Control Centers (AAPCC) maintains the National Poison Data System (NPDS), which houses de-identified case records of self-reported information collected from callers during exposure management and poison information calls managed by the country’s poison control centers (PCCs). NPDS data do not reflect the entire universe of exposures to a particular substance as additional exposures may go unreported to PCCs; accordingly, NPDS data should not be construed to represent the complete incidence of U.S. exposures to any substance(s). Exposures do not necessarily represent a poisoning or overdose and AAPCC is not able to completely verify the accuracy of every report. Findings based on NPDS data do not necessarily reflect the opinions of AAPCC.