What’s the difference between delta-9 THC and delta-8 THC? One has been widely consumed and studied for decades, while the other has boomed in popularity over the past year amid lagging regulations and research–though perhaps not for long.
Gillian Schauer, who recently took the helm as executive director of the Cannabis Regulators Association (CANNRA), gave a presentation hosted by Colorado State University Pueblo called “Delta-8 THC and other THC Analogs: Public Health and Safety Consideration.” CANNRA, an affiliate of the Council of State Governments, includes cannabis regulators from more than 35 states and jurisdictions.
The presentation came just days before both the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued its first health advisory on the unregulated and therefore potentially harmful nature of delta-8 THC products, released in tandem with a “consumer update” from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
Delta-8 THC, which doesn’t produce as potent of a high as delta-9 THC and is not as abundant in cannabis plants, is often “synthetically converted” from hemp-derived cannabidiol (CBD). The 2018 Farm Bill legalized cannabis plants with .3% THC or less, also known as hemp, and, by extension, hemp-derived products like CBD.
A World Health Organization report from 2018 “assessed” the psychotropic potential of different THC isomers, including delta-8, and concluded that this particular compound is roughly 50 to 75% as “potent” as THC.
Shauer, also a research scientist at the Addictions, Drug & Alcohol Institute at the University of Washington, spoke about the WHO report, and then largely focused her presentation on policy and public health, as well as safety considerations, at the state level.
“Most states that are regulating cannabis for medical or for adult use purposes are defining THC as delta-9 THC,” said Shauer, who worked in tobacco prevention and control before shifting to cannabis.
But the Farm Bill flung open the door to a wide range of CBD products, and also the cannabis plants’ seeds, derivatives, extracts, cannabinoids, and isomers, as long as everything was below .3% delta-9 THC.
Eventually, there was a surplus of CBD. Whether it was that surplus that pushed producers to convert CBD to delta-8 THC, or an eager customer base looking for new, legal cannabis products ahead of federal legalization, delta-8 products are here and unregulated, Shauer said.
“They’ve been in a gray area legally and they’ve otherwise been outside of regulatory control, which is part of why I think we’ve seen a boom in the market. There is no regulation over them at this juncture in most states,” Shauer said.
The Drug Enforcement Administration, which enforces federal drug laws including those for cannabis, clarified in an August 2020 rule issued in response to the Farm Bill’s legalization of hemp that “synthetically derived tetrahydrocannabinols” would remain under the purview of the Controlled Substances Act.
The problem, Shauer said, is that the DEA “did not define synthetically derived, leaving it still open for interpretation and for the advent of a pretty large market.”
“Largely, the products that we’re seeing advertised are vapes and oils, some edible products. And then I would say a much smaller market segment of joints that may be sprayed with delta-8, for example,” Shauer continued.
“We have legally created a parallel marketplace where you can have psychoactive products with much lower barriers to entry and very different regulation than you might see on the adult use cannabis marketplace,” she added.
As the CDC alert noted, delta-8 products are marketed as “weed light” or “diet weed,” and often have labeling issues. Shauer said that these products are also “marketed as a high without the mental side effects, without things like paranoia. It’s also been marketed with a host of medicinal claims.”
From a public health perspective, there are several concerns when it comes to the market moving so far ahead of the research.
“All of the THC isomers are psychotropic and impairing. So anything that we would have concerns in guarding against with delta-9 THC, we would have those same concerns for delta-8: things like impaired driving, use while operating heavy machinery, etc,” Shauer said. “All of those concerns also apply.”
The difference, though, is that regulators and policymakers are focused on delta-9 THC and its implications for public health impacts, but many are not yet aware that delta-8 is so widely available. And, unlike with delta-9, many delta-8 products are being sold online, where there’s no one checking ages at the door.
“If we’re trying to keep people in a regulated market that has a focus on public health and safety, having products that are outside of that regulated market, even if they’re in another regulated market for hemp, is problematic,” Shauer said.
Where do lawmakers and regulators go from here? The two main options are to ban THC isomers like delta-8 and delta-10 THC, or to regulate them, Shauer said. Regulation would bring more consistency in areas like packaging, child-proofing, and testing.
Regulators don’t have the “luxury” of waiting for the science and data to fully catch up before drafting rules for products like delta-8 THC, Shauer said.
Still, “how do you create policy when the safety of these products is not well understood? How do you regulate psychotropic or impairing compounds from the cannabis plant, given that our country has decided to have these two varied regulatory approaches?” Shauer asked. “One over here for hemp, and one over here for cannabis. And some states have tried to rectify that and bring the two a little bit closer together. But there’s still a bit of a line in the sand that is somewhat arbitrary, given that these are all coming from the cannabis sativa plant.”