Delta-8 is a synthetic hemp product made in a lab

CBD products made from hemp don't provide a THC high like cannabis. Delta-8 is a synthetic hemp product made in a lab.

As with previous drug analogs such as "bath salts" — a synthetic stimulant related to the active ingredient in the khat plant — and "spice" or "K2" — a synthetic, psychoactive chemical designed to mimic the effects of cannabis — delta-8, which is derived from hemp, is setting off alarm bells among healthcare professionals. According to an undated advisory on the FDA website, "From December 2020 through July 2021, the FDA received adverse event reports from both consumers and law enforcement describing 22 patients who consumed delta-8 THC products; of these, 14 presented to a hospital or emergency room for treatment following the ingestion. Of the 22 patients, 19 experienced adverse events after ingesting delta-8 THC-containing food products (e.g., brownies, gummies). Adverse events included vomiting, hallucinations, trouble standing, and loss of consciousness."

The advisory further states that “National poison control centers received 661 exposure cases of delta-8 THC products between January 2018 and July 31, 2021, 660 of which occurred between January 1, 2021, and July 31, 2021. Of the 661 exposure cases: 41% involved unintentional exposure to delta-8 THC and 77% of these unintentional exposures affected pediatric patients less than 18 years of age, 39% involved pediatric patients less than 18 years of age ... 18% required hospitalizations, including children who required intensive care unit (ICU) admission following exposure to these products.”

So, is delta-8 the new "Devil's Lettuce" or just a benign cousin to the weed we all know and love? To learn more about this relative newcomer to the synthetic drug market, Alaska Cannabist asked science writer Garrison Collette to break it down for us.

If you’re confused about all the different products derived from cannabis on offer today, you are in good company. I’ve been hanging around growing cannabis since the days of after-school cartoons, and I later earned a degree in chemistry from the University of Alaska Fairbanks. All my learning and experience is no match for the number and complexity of cannabinoid oils contained in the tiniest leaf of the incredible Cannabis genus. Let’s dig into one of the newest cannabinoids to burst onto the commercial cannabis scene, delta-8-THC, also known as delta-8, D8 or ∆8.

If you’ve ever read a cannabis test results sheet, you’ll be familiar with delta-9 THC and the stable form of THC, THCa or THC carboxylic acid, as well as CBD and CBN. What you won’t see on any test results are delta-8-THC, and there’s a good reason for that — there isn’t much delta-8 to be found in natural cannabis products. However, cannabis researchers Hollister and Gillespie, looking into treating ailments in veterans, learned that it’s possible to create delta-8-THC from CBD.

Normally, we think of CBD and THC as totally different chemicals. However, all cannabinoids are chemically related, and even a tiny difference in the chemistry of a cannabinoid can make a huge difference in the effects on the mind and body of the consumer. Though Delta-8-THC is made from non-psychoactive CBD, not THC, it will get you stoned and alter your appetite just like delta-9, the kind of THC we’re used to. But delta-8 is about a third less potent than delta-9, according to Hollister and Gillespie’s 1973 study of the pharmacology of delta-8. Pure delta-9 oil doesn’t need to be heated, and neither does delta-8; these cannabinoids are active right out of the package.

So why the sudden rush to commercialization of delta-8? Delta-8 may not produce the most amazing stoned experience, but it might be easier to defend legally from the DEA and it is likely far easier to produce large amounts of delta-8 in outdoor hemp farms than to produce similar quantities of delta-9 derived from THCa, even considering the lower potency of delta-8.

Legal-ish Weed

According to the US Drug Enforcement Administration, delta-8-THC is illegal because it is a product of the cannabis plant and is intoxicating. Also according to the DEA, products of hemp strains of the Cannabis genus containing less than 0.3% THC are legal to be sold as industrial products, such as rope or CBD. This loophole has allowed growers to cultivate hemp bred to produce CBD, then extract and process the CBD, react the CBD through about 11 steps contorting the Carbon atoms into two Carbon rings, and collect delta-8 as the product. In other words, growers found that an intoxicating compound could be produced from non-psychoactive CBD, all while never violating that the DEA rule defining hemp as less than 0.3% THC.

That legal loophole isn’t very wide though. DEA explicitly lists all products of the Cannabis plant, including THC, as a Schedule 1 drug — in other words, a drug that is more serious than cocaine, which the DEA classes as Schedule 2. The Cole memo prohibits spending federal money on cannabis enforcement in states where cannabis is legal, but most states still haven’t rolled out recreational cannabis rules. With most of the country still vulnerable to enforcement by the DEA, delta-8 opens the door for hemp growers to offer an intoxicating product from the hemp plant for sale. But there’s a catch.

Industrial Hemp Meets Oil of Vitriol

We discussed how delta-8 and delta-9 are chemically similar while having differences in bioactivity. So far, the DEA’s vague description of THC as one chemical rather than several different isomers has kept the DEA from taking delta-8 producers to court. That same lack of specificity in defining THC in law creates legal risk. The earliest mentions of delta-8 for sale that I could find on the Internet, from Leafly.com, are from 2019. It’s likely that the CBD fad has led to a surplus of CBD, pushing manufacturers to look into more uses for CBD products that aren’t commanding the same price premiums for infused beverages and pet treats as two or three years ago. In this quest for greater profit lies the most worrying pitfall of delta-8: it must be created in a lab.

Traditionally, individual cannabinoids are collected and concentrated mechanically. The 2010s witnessed advances in the purification of cannabinoid oils in the commercial markets. Among these advances were dewaxing, solvent removal and terpenoid (known as terps) adjustments that gave manufacturers the ability to control the smell and taste of their concentrates and flower. Delta-8 production is different, transitioning CBD to delta-8 by adding sulfuric acid — aka oil of vitriol — heat, running it over a metal catalyst and then washing in multiple steps. The problem with changing the structure of compounds meant for human consumption is that sometimes impurities are formed, in addition to the desired delta-8 product. Doing the reaction at the wrong temperature, letting the reaction go for too long, or problems with the purity of the starting material can create delta-9-THC, among other possible impurities. This creates a legal tripwire, since by even the vaguest DEA definition of THC, delta-9 is illegal above 0.3% in any product unless regulated by a state, territory, or the District of Columbia.

The Wild West of Chemistry

Uncertainties in the legality and purity of delta-8 aren’t stopping Alaskan businesses from giving delta-8 a full test in the marketplace. Leafly lists four Alaskan retail dispensaries carrying delta-8 products, all in Anchorage. The price is premium, at $80 to $90 per gram compared to about $25 per gram for CBD or about $50 per gram for THC concentrates. I expected delta-8 to command higher prices than CBD — delta-8 is psychoactive, after all, and is widely believed to have similar health benefits to CBD. But at almost twice the price and far less potency than delta-9-THC products, it appears that the high price for delta-8 concentrates rests squarely on the novelty of a new product.

Releaf Alaska manager Sara Williams is a hemp booster, even going so far as seeking to fund Alaska healthcare using proceeds from hemp with a program called Hemp for Healthcare. The delta-8 sold by her dispensary comes from Neulife Labs, she said, with Neulife sourcing the delta-8 from out of state. Releaf Alaska sells “delta-8 cart(ridge)s, CBD flower rolled in delta-8, and delta-8 gummies, all from Neulife Labs,” Williams said.

Conclusion

If you’ve consumed cannabis, you likely won’t experience anything new in delta-8. But with Alaska DNR’s pilot program for hemp growers, an avenue now exists for legal production of intoxicating delta-8-THC from CBD without licensing by the Alaska Alcohol and Marijuana Control Office.

With arrests for marijuana possession outpacing arrests for violent crimes in the United States by about 9% in 2019 according to the most recent data available from the FBI, significant legal risk still exists when handling any amount of cannabis. Even in Alaska, cannabis can be risky. After decriminalization of cannabis in 2014, arrests for cannabis-related crimes dropped by half in a single year. But according to FBI, in 2016 Alaska police reported 226 arrests for cannabis possession. So don’t count on delta-8 to be a get-out-of-jail free card, especially if you can’t afford a lawyer who specializes in cannabis.

With innovations like delta-8, the business case for hemp monoculture with no testing mandates is looking stronger. It’s time to legalize cannabis on the national level and bring an end to splitting hairs on exactly what is and isn’t a legal form of THC.

Garrison Collette is a freelance writer in Fairbanks. Comments about this article? Contact editor@AlaskaCannabist.com

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