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Delta-8-THC – Exploring Concerns, Legality, and Benefits

Scrolling through Instagram, I saw something that piqued my interest.  An ad with a product image of delta-8-THC followed by a content creator endorsing the benefits of delta-8-THC, labeling it as a sleep aid without the high.  A day later, a client stopped into Artemis and shared an alarming encounter.  She took a few delta-8-THC gummies and was severely impaired.  Shockingly, her story was not the exception.

Shortly after the first client, another client shared similar experiences.  Within a week, I was collecting troublesome stories about this newly popular cannabinoid surfacing more and more in the CBD market.  Then in what feels like a delta-8-THC avalanche, brands started reaching out interested in having Artemis carry their delta-8-THC products.  This set in motion my curiosity and research into delta-8.  The more I read, the more concerned I became.  The primary concern with delta-8-THC is not what it can do, but how it is created.  I reached out to Jason Wilson, MS, who is a natural products researcher, laboratory quality management consultant and board member of the Oregon Cannabis Education and Resource Center, to explore the science, regulatory issues, possible health risks and benefits surrounding delta-8-THC.

Before We Start: The Foundation – Cannabinoids

Before exploring delta-8-THC, let’s consider the chemical makeup of the cannabis and hemp plants.  Cannabinoids, such as CBD, THC, CBG, CBC and so on, are oily compounds found in the sticky resins of the cannabis and hemp plant.  There are at least 113 identified cannabinoids in the plant.  Ongoing research on particularly well known cannabinoids such as CBD and THC have been investigated to determine its potential in treating a number of different conditions ranging from epilepsy to arthritis, stress & anxiety, sleep disorders, pain, bacterial and viral infections, cancer, and more.  As the industry and market evolves, this welcomes more interest and discovery into new cannabinoids, such as delta-8-THC.  Whereas delta-9-THC has been widely researched, delta-8-THC is quite novel.  The current product offerings in the cannabis and hemp market contain delta-9-THC (for hemp products, the delta-9-THC amount has to be lower than 0.3%).  Delta-9-THC produces intoxicating or euphoric effects.

Is THC just THC? What is the Difference between Delta-8-THC and Delta-9-THC?

In speaking with Wilson, he confirmed my research on the chemical makeup of delta-8-THC (d8THC).  D8THC is produced as a byproduct and is an isomer of delta-9-THC (THC).  An isomer is a molecule that has the same chemical formula, but some slight change to its structure.  The only significant difference between delta-9-THC and delta-8-THC is the location of a double bond within one of the molecule’s three rings (see figures below).

Most delta-8-THC in the CBD market are not directly extracted from the hemp plants.  Producers of delta-8-THC are synthesizing it using CBD and other cannabinoids from hemp as a chemical precursor.  In the medical and recreational Cannabis markets, delta-8-THC is often produced by destabilizing delta-9-THC to d8THC.  Very low concentrations of delta-8-THC are naturally found in most cultivars of cannabis and hemp plants, so it is possible to extract the delta-8-THC and concentrate it.  Given that the delta-8-THC milligram amounts are quite large  in the current CBD markets, the common practice to create these high amounts is through artificial execution of converting CBD or delta-9-THC to d8THC.

What are the Effects of Delta-8-THC? Is Delta-8-THC Intoxicating?

Delta-8-THC is intoxicating.  The intoxicating effects of d8THC are not as strong as delta-9-THC (THC), but they are present – particularly at high doses.  The effects of d8THC appear to be somewhat similar to those of THC.  The intoxicating potency of d8THC has been estimated around two-thirds that of THC¹.  D8THC interacts with CB1 and CB2 receptors in the body somewhat similarly to THC, which means it affects many physiological conditions similarly to THC.  D8THC has less activity at CB1 receptors, which explains why it is less intoxicating.  Some studies indicate that d8THC may reduce intraocular pressure in glaucoma patients². D8THC has also been shown to demonstrate similar antiemetic (anti-nausea/vomiting) effects as THC³.

Less Intoxicating than Delta-9-THC with Promise of Benefits, What is the Concern?

The primary concern with delta-8-THC is not what it can do, but how it is created⁴.

Most of the delta-8-THC on the market is synthetically derived.  Given that Wilson has extensive experience in researching and analyzing cannabinoids in laboratory settings, I wanted to do a deeper dive into chemical synthesis.  Wilson shared his primary concern which is that chemical synthesis is never perfect.  When delta-8-THC is synthesized from CBD, there are a number of other chemicals that can be produced along the way – and many of these chemicals are currently unidentified.  That means that there could be unknown chemical contaminants in delta-8-THC products with unknown safety profiles.

Chemical synthesis yields (a measure of how much of the target chemical is produced during the chemical reaction) can vary substantially.  The consequence of having a “poor yield” is that non-target chemical byproducts are formed in the process.  For example, if only 50 or 60% of the target amount of d8THC is produced, then that means that the other 50 or 40% of those precursor molecules were transformed into other things – perhaps other forms of tetrahydrocannabinols, esters or polymers.  Without doing an in-depth material characterization on the product, it is difficult to say.

In discussing d8THC with Wilson, I find his laboratory results when analyzing delta-8-THC most alarming.  In 2015, he ran tests on d8THC “distillates” that were submitted to his lab.  This process was riddled with anxiety, because the actual concentration of d8THC in these tested products were substantially lower than expected.  Wilson examined the raw data for these products and found that there were all manner of THC-like compounds that had been produced during the synthesis process.  Keeping a close eye on d8THC, Wilson mentioned that his colleagues still find unidentified compounds when analyzing d8THC to this day.  Inevitably, the concerns are – what are these THC-like compounds?  What are the safety profiles of these unidentified compounds?  Unfortunately, these questions are still unanswered. 

Wilson also highlighted that there are excellent chemists that can produce exceptionally pure d8THC products without these mystery byproducts.  However, the laboratory examinations that he described are unfortunately quite common.

Is Delta-8-THC Legal?

The 2018 Agricultural Improvement Act (The Farm Bill), defines hemp as…

“…the plant Cannabis sativa L. and any part of that plant, including the seeds thereof and all derivatives, extracts, cannabinoids, isomers, acids, salts, and salts of isomers, whether growing or not, with a delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol concentration of not more than 0.3 percent on a dry weight basis.⁵”

Delta-8-THC is a cannabinoid from the Cannabis and Hemp plant that is not delta-9-THC, so what could be the issue?  The issue revolves around whether the cannabinoid is synthetically derived or not.  Currently almost all the delta-8-THC in the CBD market are synthetically derived. Earlier in 2020, the DEA sent out an interim rule that expressly stated that synthetically derived tetrahydrocannabinols remain controlled substances⁶.  The DEA took in comments about this interim rule until the latter part of October 2020.  Now only time will tell whether the DEA remains firm in their stance that synthetically derived tetrahydrocannabinol cannabinoids are controlled substances.

The Takeaway

The buzz around d8THC is not unwarranted.  By exhibiting less intoxication potential compared to THC while still delivering similar therapeutic activity as THC, d8THC is very attractive to anyone seeking to use it therapeutically.  

However, because d8THC does have some level of intoxicating potential, it presents a bit of a public health and safety issue.  Surveying the CBD market, I’ve seen delta-8-THC products as high as 25 to 30 milligrams of d8THC per gummy.  Comparing that to an average of 0.5 to 1 milligram of delta-9-THC per gummy in standard CBD products.  Furthermore, these delta-8-THC products are marketed as ‘no high’.  Because d8THC does have intoxicating potential, consuming high doses of d8THC may cause impairment.  Moreover, the process of making d8THC can produce a lot of chemical byproducts that may remain in the final product.  The safety profiles of some of these byproducts are unknown.

Also, the legal status of d8THC is obtuse.  If the DEA’s interim rule is implemented as written, synthetically derived d8THC, as well as any other tetrahydrocannabinols, will be considered controlled substances regardless of whether they are found in hemp or not. 

In regards to carrying delta-8-THC products at Artemis, I would consider exploring these product offerings when more safety protocols are established, specifically providing transparency to full lab reports on delta-8-THC for all cannabinoid and byproduct testing.  The future of delta-8-THC might be selective breeding on certain cultivars to allow for higher amounts of naturally occurring d8THC in the plant, so that we can move away from synthetically derived d8THC.  Additionally, there needs to be a reexamination on labeling delta-8-THC in the current CBD market to avoid accidental intoxication and impairment.

¹ Hollister, Leo E., Gillespie, H. K., (1973), Delta‐8‐ and delta‐9‐tetrahydrocannabinol; Comparison in man by oral and intravenous administration, Clinical Pharmacology & Therapeutics, 14, doi: 10.1002/cpt1973143353.

² Muchtar S, Almog S, Torracca MT, Saettone MF, Benita S. 1992. A submicron emulsion as ocular vehicle for delta-8-tetrahydrocannabinol: effect on intraocular pressure in rabbits. Ophthalmic Res. 24:142-149.

³ Abrahamov A, Abrahamov A, Mechoulam R. 1995. An efficient new cannabinoid antiemetic in pediatric oncology. Life Sciences 56(23/24); 2097-2102.

⁴ Drug Related Emergency Department Visits Involving Synthetic Cannabinoids. The CBHSQ Report. https://www.samhsa.gov/data/sites/default/files/SR-1378/SR-1378.htm

⁵ United States Agricultural Improvement Act of 2018

⁶ “Implementation of the Agricultural Improvement Act 2018. A Rule by the Drug Enforcement Administration on 08/21/2020”. http://federalregister.gov/d/2020-17356

Written in collaboration with Jason Wilson, MS – a science educator, natural products researcher, an expert on cannabis and cannabinoid science, and creator of the Curious About Cannabis Podcast.