Weed lovers who want to avoid getting too stoned may have a new ally in a cannabinoid called delta-8 THC. Reportedly milder than regular THC (cannabis's main psychoactive compound), the molecule has skyrocketed in popularity over the past few years – yet a lack of regulation has led to concerns that many delta-8 THC products may not be safe.
Cannabis contains hundreds of cannabinoids, although the most interesting of these is undoubtedly delta-9 THC – usually referred to simply as THC. With a high binding affinity for the brain’s cannabinoid 1 (CB1) receptors, the compound is responsible for the majority of weed’s psychoactive effects.
Delta-8 THC, meanwhile, differs from regular THC, with a double bond on the eighth carbon atom in its hydrocarbon chain as opposed to the ninth carbon like delta-9. This slightly hinders its ability to bind to CB1 receptors, which may be why the drug is reported to produce weaker effects.
To be clear, there are no actual cannabis strains containing significant levels of delta-8 THC. The compound can be obtained in the form of edibles, vape cartridges, and other types of extract.
However, delta-8 THC products are now widely available in certain places, there’s very little solid scientific data regarding the compound’s pharmacological profile. A single study published in 1973 – 49 years ago – concluded that it is around two-thirds as potent as regular THC, although no clinical research has been undertaken since then.
A sharp increase in use over the past two years has, however, allowed researchers to conduct consumer surveys. For instance, a paper published in January of this year indicated that 74 percent of people who use delta-8 THC said it allowed them to avoid the anxiety associated with stronger cannabis products, while 83 percent said the experience was devoid of paranoia. As a consequence, 57 percent indicated that they used the drug as an alternative to delta-9 THC.
In spite of this, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) received 104 reports of adverse events associated with the use of delta-8 THC between December 2020 and February 2022, 55 percent of which required hospital treatment. Meanwhile, the American Association of Poison Control Centers recorded 119 cases of hospitalization in the first six months of 2021.
“Adverse events included, but were not limited to: hallucinations, vomiting, tremor, anxiety, dizziness, confusion, and loss of consciousness,” explained the FDA in a statement.
As with many psychoactive substances, the dangers associated with delta-8 THC are likely to be amplified by the fact that it isn’t legally regulated. In the US, for instance, the legality of the compound has never been properly clarified due to the fact that it is synthesized from hemp-derived CBD.
Given that hemp has been legal across the country since 2018, it can be argued that delta-8 THC must also be permitted, despite the fact that all synthetic cannabinoids are considered illegal. This confusion has resulted in the production and distribution of delta-8 THC products throughout the US, despite the absence of any regulatory framework to oversee quality control.
It's hardly surprising, therefore, that a study published in December 2021 found that most of these products contained unexpected and potentially harmful impurities. Of the 27 products analyzed, none had accurate potency labeling, 11 contained “unlabeled cutting agents” and all featured “reaction side-products” like heavy metals, delta-9 THC and even “a novel previously undescribed cannabinoid, iso-tetrahydrocannabifuran.”
For this reason, most cannabis experts and public health officials recommend avoiding delta-8 THC products until the substance receives proper legal regulation.