At first glance, Delta-8 THC, the hemp-derived cannabinoid which produces similar effects to cannabis, appears to be a perfect stopgap measure in the midst of the ongoing battle for cannabis legalization. Those looking for a THC euphoria in states without legal access to cannabis have begun to turn to Delta-8, which is legal at the federal level because it is derived from hemp instead of cannabis. People with an aversion to cannabis flower and its associated stigma often feel less trepidation with Delta-8 products, which are now readily available in gas stations and convenience stores across the nation. But increasingly, chemists are voicing their fears about the understudied, and possibly dangerous, health effects from the by-products of Delta-8 synthesis, and more and more states are moving to ban the substance. These growing concerns beg the question: is Delta-8 THC too good to be true?
Delta-8 began as a scientific solution to an economic problem. When the 2018 U.S. Farm Bill fueled the hemp industry by legally separating it from the Delta-9 heavy cannabis, the CBD market was flooded. CBD prices dropped from $25,000 to $500 per kilogram. The price drop made CBD production less attractive, but the wording of the Bill suggested that the hemp processors could look to a different cannabinoid to widen their profit margins. By stipulating that legal hemp must contain less than .3% Delta-9 THC, the law put Delta-8 on the radar of hemp product manufacturers.
The knowledge of the chemical process used to synthesize Delta-8 from hemp has been available since the 1960’s, and was patented under the name dronabinol by Unimed Pharmaceuticals in 1985. But the product was never quite cost efficient enough to make the process profitable—until now. “One of the reasons this didn’t happen earlier is because anytime you have to do a conversion, it’s an added expense. When CBD prices went through the floor, this raw material became really cheap,” Delta-8 manufacturer Harold Jarboe told MJBizMagazine. “Previously, the barrier to doing this had been cost. And now that cost barrier was gone.” And so it was that with the stroke of a pen, a loophole became an industry.
But the fact remains that very little is known about the long-term impact of Delta-8 products. For chemists, the biggest concern is that the process of making Delta-8 creates by-products that are ingested by consumers alongside the Delta-8. The lack of industry oversight means that there are few checks on a process that has developed too quickly to identify and control the dangers of chemical by-products. Chemists generally agree that the Delta-8 production process is rife with irresponsible conduct and hasty, untested methodology.
As Christopher Hudalla, president and chief scientific officer of ProVerde Laboratories told Chemical and Engineering News, most of the Delta-8 products (which Hudalla refers to as “bathtub gin”) have more unknown compounds than Delta-8 itself. Without proper testing, there is no way to know the future side effects from these compounds. “Consumers are being used as guinea pigs. To me, that’s horrific,” Hudalla says. He advises people not to be fooled into associating hemp’s mild-mannered image with Delta-8—as he puts it: “Like making methamphetamine from cold medicine, just because the starting materials are legal does not make the resulting product legal (or safe).”
At the heart of the Delta-8 problem is that it was created out of a desire to make hemp more profitable, not to address the needs of the consumer. By exploiting a legal loophole, consumers are given the false impression that something almost completely untested and poorly understood by legislators and the scientific community is safe. With time and care, it is possible to create Delta-8 products whose impurities and by-products have been removed, but the industry is fast outpacing the scientific process.
For the cannabis industry, this issue is particularly concerning. Cannabis producers already have their work cut out for them combating the stigma created by the War on Drugs. Industry advocates have been fighting tooth and nail to get plant medicine into the hands of the people who need it. Laboratory-made, untested cannabinoids such as Delta-8 are confusing the issue and the consumer. Those who cultivate cannabis understand that the power of the plant comes from nature, not from jury-rigging chemists chasing a buck. In our fight for legalization, we need to stay focused on the best of the plant in its purest, most natural form. There is too much at stake to risk the reputation of cannabis as a whole on a Frankensteinian by-product.
By Holly Devon