Suzan Kennedy used to smoke marijuana and says her Wisconsin roots mean she can handle alcohol, so she wasn’t concerned earlier this year when a bartender in St. Paul, Minn., tasted a cocktail containing the cannabinoid delta-8 THC “a bit strong.”
Hours after enjoying the tasty drink and the silliness that Kennedy recalled being high from weed, she said she felt “really shaky and weak” before collapsing in her friend’s arms. Kennedy regained consciousness and recovered, but her dislike for Delta-8 remains, despite the substance being legal at the federal level, unlike marijuana.
“I’m not the type of guy who really tells people what to do,” said Kennedy, 35, who lives in Milwaukee and works in software sales. But if a friend tried to order a Delta 8 drink, “I would tell them, ‘Absolutely not. You don’t put that in your body.’”
The FDA and some marijuana industry experts share Kennedy’s concerns. At least a dozen states have banned the hemp-derived drug, including Colorado, Montana, New York and Oregon, which have legalized marijuana. But Delta-8 manufacturers call the concerns unfounded and say they’re being driven by marijuana companies trying to protect their market share.
So what’s the difference? The flowers of the marijuana plant, oil derived from it, and edibles made from it contain delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol, the substance that produces the drug’s high, and can only be legally sold at dispensaries in states that have legalized marijuana. Similar products containing delta-8 THC are sold online and in bars and retailers across much of the US, including some places where cannabis remains illegal. That’s because a 2018 federal law legalized hemp, a variety of the cannabis plant. Hemp must contain no more than 0.3% of the psychotropic delta-9-THC found in marijuana.
Concerns about Delta-8 are mostly centered on how it’s made. Delta-8 is typically made by dissolving CBD — a compound found in cannabis plants — in solvents like toluene, which is often found in paint thinners. Some people in the marijuana industry say the process leaves a potentially harmful residue. A study published last year in the journal Chemical Research in Toxicology found lead, mercury and silicon in Delta-8 electronic cigarettes.
The FDA has warned of Delta-8’s “serious health risks,” citing concerns about the conversion process, and has received more than 100 reports of people experiencing hallucinations, vomiting, and loss of consciousness, among other things, after consumption. From January 2021 through this February, national poison centers received more than 2,300 Delta-8 cases, 70% of which required user screening in healthcare facilities, according to the FDA.
Delta-8 is “just the obvious solution for people who want access to cannabis but live in a state where it’s illegal,” said Dr. Peter Grinspoon, a primary care physician at Massachusetts General Hospital and longtime medicinal cannabis purveyor. “You can either get in a lot of trouble buying cannabis or you can get Delta-8.”
Grinspoon described Delta-8 as about half the potency of marijuana. But due to the lack of research on the possible benefits of Delta-8 and the lack of regulation, he would not recommend using it to his patients. If regulated like Massachusetts’ medical and recreational marijuana programs, harmful contaminants could be labeled or removed, he said.
Christopher Hudalla, chief scientific officer at ProVerde Laboratories, a Massachusetts marijuana and hemp testing company, said he has studied thousands of Delta-8 products and any contaminants they contain that could be harmful to consumer health.
Delta-8 has “incredible potential as a therapeutic” because it has many of the same benefits as marijuana, except for some intoxication, Hudalla said. “But like unicorns, Delta-8 doesn’t exist. What is on the market are synthetic mixtures of unknown garbage.”
Justin Journay, owner of Delta 8 brand 3Chi, is skeptical about concerns about the products. He founded the company in 2018 after hemp oil relieved his shoulder pain. He soon began to wonder what other cannabinoids in hemp might do. “‘There must be some gold in those hills,'” Journay recalled. He said his Indiana-based company now has more than 300 employees and sponsors a NASCAR team.
When asked about the FDA’s reports of bad reactions, Journay said, “There are risks with THC. They absolutely exist. There are risks with cheeseburgers.”
He attributes the side effects to taking too much. “We say, ‘Start low.’ You can always take more,” Journay said.
Journay said he understands the concerns about contamination in Delta-8 products and that his company is conducting tests to identify the tiny fraction of substances that remain unknown, which he claims are cannabinoids from the plant .
An analysis of 3Chi Delta-8 oil conducted by Hudalla’s company last year and published on 3Chi’s website found several unidentified compounds that “are not naturally occurring” and therefore “would not be recommended for human consumption.” . Delta 8 oil is still sold on 3Chi’s website.
Journay said the analysis showed only 0.4% of the oil contained unknown compounds. “Then how can they say definitively that a compound isn’t natural when they don’t even know what it is?” he said in an email.
“The vast majority of the negative information out there and the push to make Delta-8 illegal comes from within the marijuana industry,” Journay said. “It eats into their profit margins, which is funny that the marijuana guys are suddenly pro-ban.”
Delta 8 products appear to be significantly cheaper than weed. For example, Curaleaf, one of the world’s largest cannabis companies, is offering packs of gum containing 100 milligrams of delta-9-THC for $25 plus sales tax at a pharmacy in Massachusetts. At 3Chi, 400 milligram Delta-8 gummies are $29.99 online excluding tax.
There is some truth in Journay’s criticism of the marijuana industry, said Chris Lindsey, government relations director of the Marijuana Policy Project, which works to legalize marijuana for adults. “We’re seeing this happening in every single state to legalize adult use,” Lindsey said. “Your established medicinal cannabis industry will sometimes be your loudest opponents, and that’s a business matter. It’s not a marijuana thing.”
Still, the bans may not fully work. In New York, which banned Delta-8 in 2021, Lindsey says it’s available at every bodega.
In July, Minnesota introduced legislation limiting the amount of THC, including Delta-8, allowed in hemp products outside of its medical marijuana program. News reports said the law would wipe out Delta-8. But the state cannot “control what is sold and shipped over the internet outside of Minnesota,” said Maren Schroeder, policy director of Sensible Change Minnesota, which aims to legalize adult-use recreational cannabis.
Max Barber, a writer and editor in Minneapolis, remains interested in Delta-8 despite his state’s restrictions. Although he could probably get a medical marijuana prescription because he has an anxiety disorder and chronic sleep problems, he didn’t pursue it because weed made his anxiety worse. He used CBD oil but found the effects to be inconsistent. In March 2021, he tried a 10 milligram Delta 8 gum.
“It got me pretty high, which I don’t enjoy,” he said.
Then he found what he thinks is the right dosage: a third of a jelly bean, which he takes in the evening. He said he now gets between six and eight hours of sleep each night, is less anxious, and is able to concentrate better. “I’ve become something of a Delta-8 evangelist for everyone I know who has trouble sleeping,” said Barber, who bought enough jelly beans to last months after the new law went into effect.
To address concerns about Delta-8, the federal government should regulate it and make cannabis more accessible for consumers, said Paul Armentano, deputy director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.
He pointed to a recent study in the International Journal of Drug Policy showing that Google searches for Delta-8 in the US have skyrocketed in 2021, and that interest is particularly strong in states that restrict cannabis use was. “In an environment where whole plant cannabis is legally available, there would be little to no demand for these alternative products,” Armentano said.
Lindsey of the Marijuana Policy Project isn’t so sure that would matter. When he first learned of Delta-8’s growing popularity in 2021, he thought it would go the way of drugs like K2 or Spice, which he said have been falling between regulatory mandates long enough to hit shelves to come before they finally close.
“That didn’t happen,” Lindsey said. “The more we understand about this plant, the more of these different cannabinoids will come out.” And that, he said, will in turn spark interest from consumers and businesses.
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