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Delta-8-Tetrahydrocannabinol (delta-8, also seen as ∆8-THC) is a psychoactive and intoxicating cannabinoid similar to Delta-9-Tetrahydrocannabinol (the commonly found THC we all know well). Delta-8 has seen a surge in popularity due to a legal loophole in federal regulations that limits THC to 0.3% in hemp products but has no limit for delta-8.
The History of Delta-8
Roger Adams and a team of researchers at the University of Illinois were the first to report partial synthesis of delta-8 in 1941. It wasn’t until 1966, when Dr. Raphael Mechoulam and his colleague Dr. Yechiel Gaoni, achieved a total synthesis of delta-8 as part of their groundbreaking work at Hebrew University. In 2002, Dr. Mechoulam applied for a patent on the conversion of CBD into delta-8 and THC through various methods, which he received in 2008, and expired in 2022. As delta-8 is an isomer of THC, they have a similar chemical structure, and the only difference is the location of a double bond between two carbons. They are both psychoactive chemicals with intoxicating, euphoric properties.
A year before Dr. Mechoulam’s patent expired was the first time the American Association of Poison Control Centers “introduced a product code specific to delta-8 THC into its National Poison Data System, allowing for the monitoring of delta-8 THC adverse events.” That would mean that, officially, 2020 was the year that the delta-8 craze began in America.
Is Delta-8 Natural or Synthetic?
The answer to this question is complicated and depends on how you define a synthetic cannabinoid. The National Institute on Drug Abuse says that “Synthetic cannabinoids are human-made mind-altering chemicals … they are similar to chemicals found in the marijuana plant.” In order to be synthetic, a cannabinoid must be made by humans and be similar to chemicals found in the plant. In the case of delta-8, it is not similar to a cannabinoid found in the plant, it naturally is found there in very small amounts. Even though the majority of delta-8 on the market is from a lab, not the plant, the cannabinoids were still made by the plant, they were converted by humans.
The FDA’s guidance is a little more complicated. While they note delta-8 is “produced naturally by the cannabis plant,” they are clear that “concentrated amounts of delta-8 THC are typically manufactured from hemp-derived cannabidiol (CBD).” As the word “manufactured” is another way of saying something was “made,” it is ambiguous on if the FDA would view delta-8 as synthetic, and it would likely depend on where it was sourced from (a plant versus a lab).
How Most Delta-8 Gets Produced
As there are only trace amounts of delta-8 found in hemp and cannabis plants, an incalculably high percentage of delta-8 on the market was produced in a lab using the chemical conversion that Dr. Mechoulam discovered.
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. Experts who spoke to CEN described the conversion process as “pretty aggressive” and noted that it used “strong acids,” and in order to neutralize those conditions they would need to use strong bases, metal catalysts, or a number of other methods.
While it is possible to purify converted delta-8 from unwanted contaminants, reaction leftovers, or other by-products, most people doing those conversions are not chemists and do not properly distill it or use appropriate testing methods.
Is Delta-8 Dangerous?
A literature review published last year found that, “No comprehensive review articles have been published that focus exclusively on Δ8-THC,” meaning their study was the first to focus on delta-8. Rather than finding delta-8 to be more harmful than THC, they found “that Δ8-THC has [a] weaker potency than Δ9-THC.”
Jeffrey Raber, is a cofounder and the CEO of the Werc Shop, a California-based cannabis contract manufacturing and testing firm, who saw the potential of delta-8 several years ago. “It’s a very interesting molecule, one that has very different physiological activity depending upon the entourage,” said Raber, who is urging regulators to address the testing and purity concerns around delta-8 while still allowing safe use.
The FDA received 104 reports of adverse events in people who used delta-8 products between December 1, 2020, and February 28, 2022. None of those were fatal, and the events included “hallucinations, vomiting, tremor, anxiety, dizziness, confusion, and loss of consciousness.” Poison control centers around the US received 2,362 cases of delta-8 exposure from January 1, 2021 (when delta-8 was first coded) and February 28, 2022, with one pediatric case that resulted in death.
What is not clear is if those negative experiences and that one death were caused by delta-8 itself, or the rampant impurities in delta-8 products. Due to the lack of regulations, much of the delta-8 on the market is tainted with trace amounts of other cannabinoids (possibly THC or even Delta-10-THC, another isomer) and by-products from the chemical conversion.
Kyle Boyar is a research associate at the Center for Medicinal Cannabis Research, and has reported that olivetol, a chemical precursor to THC, is a common by-product found in delta-8 products, adding “I don’t think anybody really knows the safe inhalation dose of olivetol.” As there are a range of solvents used for the conversion from CBD, there can be a wide variety of residual solvents in delta-8 products, and some, like dichloromethane and trichloroacetic acid, don’t even have standardized testing methods developed.
What Caused the Delta-8 Craze?
While 2020 was the year of the craze, what was the “why” behind the delta-8 craze? Some sources note that the delta-8 craze began only after the price of CBD plummeted, and hemp companies needed a new way to turn a profit. So was a need to stay profitable the reason behind the delta-8 craze?
It certainly was a contributing factor, but the real cause of the delta-8 craze, like the CBD craze before it, was cannabis prohibition. If there was no cannabis prohibition, then everyone using less safe hemp products could use legal, lab tested cannabis products. As long as whole plant cannabis containing over a certain amount of THC is illegal, people around the world will look for ways to get around that limit and create legal loopholes, and that is all delta-8 is, a new loophole to circumvent prohibition.
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