Why is delta-8 THC such a hot-button topic?
Delta-8 THC is arguably the most controversial compound in the hemp cannabinoid market today. Although the psychoactive cannabinoid is considered legal federally, there are vocal critics and legislators restricting its sales in more than 20 states.
Today, the compound exists in a gray area. Few producers, consumers, or regulators truly understand what it is and how it is legislated. Let’s dig into the history, restrictions, and future of delta-8 and consider how upcoming changes could bring the compound out of legal limbo.
What Is Delta-8 THC?
Delta-8 THC, or delta-8-tetrahydrocannabinol, is a psychoactive compound present in the Cannabis sativa plant, the plant from which marijuana and hemp products are derived. As its name suggests, delta-8 THC has a chemical structure that closely resembles that of delta-9 THC, or delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol. Delta-9 THC is the primary psychoactive component in cannabis. However, delta-8 is known for producing milder psychoactive effects on users compared to its cannabinoid cousin.
It’s worth noting that delta-8 is found naturally in only small amounts in the Cannabis sativa plant. So, producers usually synthesize delta-8 from legal, hemp-derived CBD.1 This process, called isomerization, dissolves CBD in glacial acetic acid that converts it to delta-9 THC. Over three days, roughly half of this material transforms into delta-8 THC. An experienced chemist must oversee this process, and a third-party laboratory should test the final products for quality control.
Delta-8 products—ranging from flower to oil—reportedly produce a “clear” high without the typical anxiety often associated with exposure to delta-9 THC. In a survey of 500 delta-8 THC users, respondents reported experiencing relaxation, pain relief, and euphoria.2 Additionally, most participants noted that they could carry out their daily activities without encountering the adverse side effects commonly linked to cannabis use, such as paranoia, anxiety, or excessive hunger.
Why the Controversy?
But not everyone’s happy with delta-8. Critics of the cannabinoid argue that its legalization was a loophole in the 2018 Farm Bill. This omnibus bill, passed every five years, legalized hemp nationwide and brought hemp cannabidiol (CBD) products to the mainstream. At the same time, since the legislation’s hemp provisions did not specifically mention delta-8 THC, some argue they also opened the door for legal sales of delta-8 THC.
On a federal level, there are no current restrictions on hemp-derived delta-8. In fact, an article reports that communications from the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) in 2021 seemed to acknowledge that delta-8 is not federally illegal3, as the Farm Bill’s statute only prohibits cannabis products containing more than 0.3% delta-9 THC by dry weight.
However, things are very different at the state level. More than 20 states have moved to impose restrictions on delta-8. Moreover, FDA has issued warnings4 to companies marketing delta-8 products, citing “unsanctioned claims” about their therapeutic potential.
This last point is important. Despite legalization, there’s little regulation in this space, and cowboy operators are taking advantage of the unfortunate status quo. For example, foods like brownies and gummies may market themselves as containing delta-8 THC, but there is little oversight and enforcement to ensure the product contains and does what it says it does. A recent report suggests that only 7%5 of CBD producers currently test for purity and potency. While CBD is a different cannabinoid from delta-8 THC, similar concerns over delta-8 THC exist considering the psychedelic properties of delta-8 THC.
What Happens Next?
The divide between federal legality and state censorship aptly illustrates this moment for delta-8. There’s just no certainty. Producing, selling, and consuming this compound right now is confusing, and it doesn’t need to be.
There’s hope that legislative clarity will come in this year’s coming update to the Farm Bill. Such a move has already been suggested by other legislative bodies. As I recently wrote in Nutritional Outlook6, a federal appeals court in 2022 upheld7 the legality of delta-8 products under the 2018 Farm Bill. However, the court acknowledged that if an unintended loophole was created, “then it is for Congress to fix its mistake.”
In addition to clear rules regarding delta-8, let’s look forward to production certainty. There’s a quality control issue in CBD with an estimated 40% of samples in this study8 containing pesticides and heavy metals. The industry needs to clean up its act and implement minimum standards. The FDA wants to do this9 by creating a separate regulatory pathway for dietary supplements and food containing CBD. While I believe regulation can adequately address product safety and quality without requiring an entirely separate legislative pathway, the administration wants safeguards like CBD content limits and correct labels. This is a good thing. Let’s hope the industry is consulted throughout the process and that any resulting approvals processes follow common sense.
Finally, a definitive ruling will also pave the way for more research into delta-8. While some researchers currently describe delta-8 as delta-9’s “nicer sibling“10—as it provides “much of the experiential benefits of delta-9-THC with lesser adverse effects”—consumers deserve systematic studies. Understanding delta-8 THC will help us recognize any pitfalls and best unlock its potential.
About the Author
This article is by Scott Mazza, cofounder and chief operating officer for CBD products brand Vitality CBD (Buffalo, NY). Hailing from a background in finance, Scott is well versed in the benefits of hemp and is passionate about providing people with a natural alternative to the pharmaceutical industry.