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Avoid ‘Diet Weed,’ Johns Hopkins Expert Says

The hemp-derived cannabinoid market is hotter than ever but experts warn that people should educate themselves about the fundamental differences between delta-8 THC and delta-9 THC products. High Times previously reported that delta-8 THC was first partially synthesized in 1941, yet there’s still a lot of controversy surrounding the ingredient, due to the way it’s extracted and converted. 

Nextar reports that a Johns Hopkins School of Medicine professor and other experts want to educate people about the choices they should make with cannabis.

“Chemically, they’re almost identical. But that one little difference in that chemical structure results in a different way that it interacts with your body … with your [cannabinoid] receptors,” explains Ryan Vandrey, Ph.D., a professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine who specializes in the behavior pharmacology of cannabis.

The majority of delta-8 on the market is converted from CBD, using a natural solvent and an acid as a catalyst, but people inside and out of the cannabis industry cannot seem to agree whether delta-8 should be defined as synthetic or natural. 

Vandrey also added that delta-9 THC is stronger, so why would consumers go to delta-8?

“The reason people call delta-8-THC ‘diet weed’ [is because] that chemical difference is a little less potent at what it does at the receptor,” Vandrey said, adding that delta-8 is “about half as effective” at producing the same high as delta-9.

“Does delta-8 THC get you high or is it a scam?” a popular Reddit thread in r/weed asked. The consensus appears to confirm that it has fewer psychedelic effects compared to delta-9 THC.

Sales of hemp-derived cannabinoids like CBD outpace adult-use cannabis and are comparable to the craft beer industry, Whitney Economics found. There are no signs that the industry is going to slow down.

Representatives from NORML have told High Times that delta-8 is not a primary concern, but it’s more about residual chemicals and other byproducts in gas station hemp products you should be worried about most. Dale Gieringer of Cal NORML specifically warned about THCO, which he thinks is instead one of the more particularly problematic compounds with the potential for real injuries.

Peter Grinspoon, M.D.,a primary care doctor at Mass General Hospital and an instructor at Harvard Medical School, supports medical cannabis but says state medical cannabis programs do a much better job at vetting ingredients than shops selling delta-8 products.

Grinspoon clarified that the confusion caused by the federal government itself makes it hard to distinguish what’s safe and what’s not regarding hemp-derived cannabinoids.

“In addition to lack of regulation, we have regulatory incoherence from different branches and levels of government. … That’s going to make it even harder to get any coherent regulation on things,” he told Nexstar.

Legal experts noted that the FDA had no intention of legalizing delta-8 when the 2018 Farm Bill was passed, so time’s ticking for the hemp-derived cannabinoids industry. But sellers have it practically everywhere.

“Delta-8 is so close to delta-9, it’s probably relatively safe,” Grinspoon said. “But even if we figured out that delta-8 is safe—the delta-8 you’re buying at your local smoke shop, we have no idea what’s in it.”

The 2018 Farm Bill paved the way for the Ninth Circuit Court to rule that certain low-THC cannabis derivatives were exempt from the Controlled Substances Act. This left a loophole for hemp-derived products that produce a psychoactive effect, but the feds never intended to do so.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) warned that delta-8 and similar cannabinoid derivatives, have “psychoactive and intoxicating effects that may be dangerous to consumers” and urged Congress to act and set up regulations. These hemp-derived cannabinoids leave room for the potential of harmful contaminants, the FDA says.

How is Delta-8 THC Made?

Delta-8 THC is only found in minute amounts in the wild, therefore in order to get enough to infuse products, it must be converted from CBD. Roger Adams and a team of researchers at the University of Illinois were the first to report partial synthesis of delta-8 in 1941.

High Times reported on exactly how it’s done:

The publication Chemical and Engineering News (CEN) described the process as “refluxing CBD in an organic solvent, such as toluene or heptane, with p-toluenesulfonic acid or another acid that serves as a catalyst.” In a controlled, regulated environment, these reactions would be done by PhD chemists to ensure there are no harmful by-products left in products sold to consumers, but the hemp industry is notoriously under-regulated with no requirements for lab testing.

CEN also described the rise of delta-8 THC “a concern.”

It’s up to every consumer to adhere to “buyer beware,” or at least know the differences between delta-8 and delta-9 THC, which are significant.

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