BY BEN THOMAS | Photo by Nathanael Turner
Delta-8-THC seemed to explode out of nowhere over the past year. If you live in a state where cannabis is illegal, you might’ve been surprised to see your local CBD shops hyping delta-8-THC products—including vape cartridges, edibles, and even "infused hemp flower"—all of which promise to deliver a full-powered weed experience without breaking any state or federal laws.
Is delta-8 too good to be true? Well… it’s complicated. This close relative of delta-9-THC is definitely psychoactive; but individual results tend to vary, as do the chemical contents of delta-8 products (to a degree that’s frankly worrying). And while delta-8 is technically legal, that’s only because it skirts around legislation targeting delta-9-THC—which many states are now expanding to restrict the sale of delta-8, too.
How does delta-8-THC stack up against delta-9? Why is it suddenly so popular? What does its future look like? Let’s break down the facts on this newly famous cannabinoid, and find out what we know for sure—as well as what we don’t.
The acronym “THC” (short for “tetrahydrocannabinol”) usually refers to delta-9-THC, the chemical that’s famous for producing many of weed’s mind-altering effects. But delta-9-THC is only one of the 100+ cannabinoids found in cannabis flower, and it’s only one “version” (or isomer) of THC that the cannabis plant produces. Delta-8 is an equally natural THC isomer—a little-known sibling of the real A-list celebrity, delta-9.
Chemists first became aware of delta-8 in 1965, when it was described in a paper by Dr. Raphael Mechoulam. However, the only clinical study of delta-8 appeared in 1995, when Mechoulam and his colleagues reported that it reduced cancer patients’ nausea after chemotherapy sessions. After that, delta-8 largely dropped off the radar, because cannabis plants produce it in such low concentrations that it’s very expensive to extract.
Although delta-9-THC is federally illegal, a loophole in the 2018 Farm Bill makes “hemp” products like delta-8-THC legal as long as the plants contain 0.3 percent delta-9-THC or less.
For precisely that reason, the delta-8 in store-bought products is not the natural form found in cannabis plants, but an artificial version engineered in labs. And as we’ll see below, most attempts to synthesize delta-8 create a slew of unnatural byproducts along the way.
In their natural forms, however, delta-8 and delta-9-THC are very similar. The two molecules are composed of the exact same atoms, arranged in nearly identical chemical structures—except that in delta-8, one of the double bonds between carbon atoms appears in a slightly different location. Tiny as this difference may seem, it technically makes delta-8-THC legal at the federal level—even though it can be almost as psychoactive as illegal delta-9.
Depends on the strain, and on who you ask. Some reviewers say it doesn’t get you high, exactly; but “something is definitely happening” beyond the mild calm of an ordinary CBD edible. My own experience, as a person who’s pretty THC-sensitive, has been that delta-8 definitely produces a noticeable high—especially in sativa strains.
But Delta-8’s psychoactivity rocketed this obscure cannabinoid to fast fame in 2020, as cannabis companies scrambled to find more profitable uses for CBD stocks whose price was plummeting due to oversupply. Although delta-9-THC was (and still is) federally illegal, the 2018 Farm Bill makes “hemp” products legal as long as the plants contain 0.3 percent delta-9-THC or less.
Producers realized that, with the help of Dr. Mechoulam’s 60-year-old chemistry, they could use their low-value CBD supplies to synthesize delta-9’s legal (and much more profitable) sibling, delta-8-THC. Ka-ching!
“Every delta-8 product we have seen represents a mixture of unknown, unintended chemical consequences, each with unknown toxicities."
Not so fast, though. While synthesizing delta-8 from CBD might sound simple on paper, the reality is that it’s a complex multi-step process involving (among other things) strong acids and hot metals. And even with careful planning, the purity of the end product can be hard to predict.
“Just because the starting materials are legal and safe, that does not make the resulting products safe,” says Dr. Christopher Hudalla, president and chief scientific officer of ProVerde Laboratories, to MedMen's Ember. “In any chemical synthesis, there are unintended side reactions that result in synthetic impurities.” And in the synthesis of delta-8, those impurities often add up to what Hudalla says is “quite a soup" of by-products and other unwanted compounds.
In fact, ProVerde’s ongoing analysis has found that delta-8 edibles and cartridges usually contain small amounts of additional THC isomers like delta-9 and delta-10-THC—along with as many as 30 other unidentified chemicals. “Every delta-8 product we have seen represents a mixture of unknown, unintended chemical consequences, each with unknown toxicities,” Hudalla says. “I think of it as the ‘Frankenstein’ of cannabis.”
After testing numerous products sent in by leading delta-8 vendors, ProVerde has yet to find a single one that’s free from chemical contamination. “I am continually begging producers to prove me wrong, to present me with a sample that is free from unknown contaminants,” Hudalla says. “But each sample they send me seems to be more contaminated than the last.”
That’s a big concern for delta-8 consumers, who have no way to be sure what’s in the products they’re swallowing or inhaling. “Like the production of ‘bathtub gin’ and methamphetamine, the chemical transformations for synthesis of delta-8 are not very well controlled,” Hudalla explains. “There is no assurance that what you intended to make is indeed what you did make.”
As of September 2021, delta-8-THC products are completely legal at the federal level. Anyone over 18 can buy them without a prescription—and most stores that sell CBD products are now carrying them. In fact, many CBD shops are massively hyping delta-8, since this cannabinoid’s psychoactivity serves as a powerful selling point in states where delta-9-THC is prohibited.
Still, delta-8-THC has mainly remained legal thanks to its relative obscurity. Until recently, most state and federal legislation has equated “marijuana” with delta-9-THC, leaving producers free to market other cannabinoids throughout the country. But as delta-8’s popularity grows, regulators—and researchers—are paying closer attention.
“Consumers are being dosed on a large scale with unknown chemical compounds,” Hudalla says. “Many of these consumers are minors.” In a world where people are wary of medicines that have passed through successful clinical trials, the presence of unknown, untested chemicals in delta-8 products would seem to be an even greater cause for concern. In fact, that concern has already begun to spark a regulatory crackdown.
“Consumers are being dosed on a large scale with unknown chemical compounds. Many of these consumers are minors."
In 2021, a full 14 states—Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Delaware, Idaho, Iowa, Kentucky, Mississippi, Montana, New York, Rhode Island, Vermont and Utah—introduced laws to block or restrict the sale of delta-8-THC, citing potential health hazards as the main reason. (Texas, meanwhile, seems to be a bit confused: the state legislature recently struck delta-8 from a criminal cannabis bill, and actually doubled the amount of THC permitted in CBD products—effectively making it both legal and illegal at the same time.)
For the immediate future, delta-8-THC is unlikely to present much serious competition in markets where customers have equally legal access to full-spectrum delta-9. But in more restrictive states, delta-8 fills a high-demand niche; giving customers the full cannabis experience (or at least a mild version of it) in fully legal form. As long as that niche remains profitable, we can expect to hear a lot more about this controversial cannabinoid.
“I’m optimistic about the therapeutic and recreational applications for delta-8-THC products,” Hudalla says. “But first, we as an industry need to do our own responsible monitoring of production and distribution. Someone has to look out for the consumers.”
Ben Thomas is a journalist and novelist who's lived in 40+ countries. He specializes in telling stories from the frontiers of science, history, culture and the cosmos—and the points where all these fields intersect.