Delta-8 THC (or “D8” for short) has taken the recreational cannabis and hemp supplement markets by storm. However, despite its popularity, delta-8 garnered significant controversy in recent months.
A milder alternative to the intense, intoxicating “high” of delta-9 THC, delta-8 THC is sometimes referred to as “diet weed” by conventional cannabis users. But recently, the product has been associated with adverse events triggered by potentially harmful by-products.
As national poison control centers report cases of delta-8 THC toxicity, these cannabis products raise significant public health concerns.
With cannabis research into delta-8 being minimal, the psychoactive substance could pose risks that other emerging cannabis-derived products don’t.
So is delta-8 THC safe? Are some delta-8 products better? What therapeutic or medical uses – if any – could delta-8 offer? The answers require a thorough understanding of what delta-8 is, how it’s made, and why it’s so popular.
What is Delta-8 THC?
Delta-8 THC is a minor cannabinoid found in different cultivars (“strains”) of the cannabis sativa plant. Delta-8 is one of several forms of THC and has a similar chemical structure to delta-9. However, D8’s psychoactive and intoxicating effects are considerably milder.
Both delta-9 and CBD are isomers of delta-8. This means they have identical atomic makeups but different molecular structures. Despite the seemingly minor difference, delta-8 doesn’t bind as strongly to the CB1 cannabinoid receptors as delta-9. Consequently, the mind-altering effects of delta-8 THC are – according to some reports – roughly 50% less potent.
Unfortunately, cannabis plants contain little delta-8 THC, making it impossible to selectively cultivate strains focused on that cannabinoid.
However, there’s another way to extract enough delta-8 for mass production. This is where delta-8 products differ from their other hemp-derived counterparts. Production and extraction are the main reasons regulators are nervous about this “diet weed.”
Is Delta-8 Natural or Synthetic?
Technically, delta-8 is natural. It’s a cannabinoid, like CBD or delta-9 THC. A “synthetic” cannabinoid is chemically produced to mimic the psychoactive substance found in “marijuana.” Some examples include K2 or “Spice,” which often fall into a legal gray area.
However, synthetic cannabinoids have nothing in common with natural ones. Consequently, these chemical products come with a long and notorious history of emergency room and even deaths among users.
But delta-8 may be the first natural cannabinoid product (other than delta-9 THC) to pose a significant public health risk. We’ll get into that shortly.
For now, delta-8 as a cannabinoid is natural and inherently harmless – at least to our knowledge. Delta-8 products, on the other hand, are synthesized in such a way that they blur the line between natural and “man-made.”
This inevitably splits “delta-8” into two categories—Delta-8 THC as a cannabinoid and delta-8 THC as an extract. The former is natural, while the latter is synthesized from natural sources.
How is Delta-8 THC Made?
This brings us to the gritty part. Other cannabinoids, like CBD, CBN, CBG, or CBC, are clean and safe to consume (when supported by third-party lab reports).
Delta-8 THC, on the other hand, isn’t synthesized in the same way as conventional medical or recreational cannabis products. The medical community believes this extraction process is primarily behind several reported adverse events.
While other potentially harmful substances might contaminate innocuous products like CBD oil, these incidents aren’t typical. Furthermore, consumers can easily avoid low-quality, untested products in favor of various premium extract vendors.
Delta-8, on the other hand, is present in only trace amounts, forcing manufacturers to use more extreme – and arguably dangerous – means.
Delta-8 THC is an “isomer” of CBD, meaning it mirrors the same number and types of molecules, but is arranged differently. This structural difference changes how these molecules interact with our cannabinoid receptors – if at all.
You can’t create a chemical isomer with butter and hemp flower at home. Unfortunately, it requires potentially harmful chemicals in various over-the-counter or industrial products.
It’s safe to conclude that the isomerization process is dirtier and more toxic than CO2, ethanol, or even butane purification.
How Delta-8 THC is Made: The Isomerization Process
Although delta-9 THC is also an isomer of delta-8, CBD is more accessible thanks to the 2018 Farm Bill.
But while hemp cannabis raw extracts use the same source plant, this is where delta-8 and other cannabinoid products diverge.
The point of contention is the chemical process required to rearrange the molecules in CBD to mirror delta-8. The FDA warns that this method requires “potentially unsafe household chemicals.”
Synthesizing delta-8 is a rather technical process, so we’ll do our best to cover the basics. The isomerization of CBD into delta-8 THC can be boiled down to the following steps:
Step 1: Preparing the Extract
To start the process, manufacturers want to increase the viscosity (thickness) of the extract. They do this by dissolving it into an organic solvent. However, don’t be fooled by that term. These solvents are classified as “organic” because they’re carbon-based.
Many organic solvents are neurotoxins, carcinogens, and more.
Step 2: Lower the pH
The initial mixture is alkaline, but manufacturers must introduce acid to lower the pH. The highly toxic acids can easily trigger severe adverse events if ingested or inhaled.
Some examples of these solvents include:
- Hydrochloric acid
- Sulfuric acid
Step 3: Apply Heat
Once the ingredients combine, the formula is exposed to heat, allowing the isomerization process to occur.
Over several hours, the CBD extract forcefully rearranges into useable delta-8 THC.
Step 4: Filtration
Once the isomerization process is complete, manufacturers (ideally) flush out trace solvents during filtration.
Step 5: Test
All cannabis products should be independently tested for safety. Considering how harmful poorly-made delta-8 THC could be, it’s imperative to find a vendor that publishes third-party tests.
Delta-8 THC vs Delta-9 THC
Delta-8 and delta-9 THC are similar in most respects. Let’s quickly cover some key similarities and differences.
- Binds to both endocannabinoid receptors
- Weaker affinity for the CB1 receptors in the central nervous system
- Less intense psychoactive and intoxicating effects
- Chemical double-bond between the 8th and 9th carbon chains
- No prescription needed
- Available in convenience stores, smoke shops, and other non-plant-touching businesses
- Legal gray area, but states are gradually banning it
- Binds to both endocannabinoid receptors
- Strongest affinity for the CB1 receptors compared to all other cannabinoids
- Potentially intense psychoactive and intoxicating effects
- Federally illegal
- Available via prescription in most states and is recreationally legal in a small – but growing – number of states
- Chemical double-bond between the 9th and 10th carbon chains
- Legally available at recreational or medical dispensaries
- Significant black market presence
Why is Delta-8 THC So Popular Now?
While the health effects of delta-8 aren’t fully understood, it’s clear why these products became so popular.
Like CBD, delta-8 THC started in a legal gray area. But while the fight to normalize CBD revolved around its therapeutic benefits, many delta-8 fans appreciate its recreational applications.
In short, delta-8 provides a loophole for THC users. Although it may not trigger the same heavy effects as delta-9, D8 provides a comparable alternative.
Unfortunately, many vendors mislead consumers by saying delta-8 THC is legal in all 50 states. This isn’t true. Either the vendor is lying, or they don’t know that delta-8 doesn’t have the same legal protections just because it comes from hemp-derived CBD.
Check your state laws regarding hemp-derived cannabis extracts.
We often see questions about CBD’s physical or mental effects – the “CBD feeling,” so to speak. However, CBD doesn’t trigger intoxication or euphoria. Instead, users experience a sense of relief or improved wellness.
Delta-8 THC, on the other hand, has very distinct effects identical to THC, with the caveat that they’re significantly weaker. These include:
- Poor coordination
- Memory issues
- Appetite changes
- Dry mouth
- Rapid heart rate
CBD also has some side effects, but they’re rare, mild, and usually go away within a few days.
It’s no surprise that vendors jumped at the opportunity to sell delta-8. Unfortunately, they did so without any research. They possibly knew their window was limited by an inevitable ban (which occurred in certain states).
When regulators learned enough to warn consumers, cheap delta-8 products were available in convenience stores, gas stations, and online retail outlets. Some companies have little knowledge of the product or its risks – a serious liability when toxic chemicals are involved.
Alleged Medical Benefits
Despite the controversy, delta-8 THC may have some medical benefits similar – if not identical – to delta-9. Unfortunately, research is virtually non-existent. However, one 2021 publication in Cannabis and Cannabinoid Research suggests delta-8 THC could have therapeutic applications.
Although the study used a small sample and was survey-based, it indicates a pattern of medical use eerily similar to delta-9 THC.
According to the researchers:
About half of the participants (51%) used delta-8-THC to treat a range of health and medical conditions, primarily anxiety or panic attacks (69%), stress (52%), depression or bipolar disorder (46%), and chronic pain (41%). Participants compared delta-8-THC very favorably with both delta-9-THC and pharmaceutical drugs and reported substantial levels of substitution for both.
Again, this doesn’t provide delta-8’s efficacy but offers a glimpse into its place in the medical cannabis niche.
Is Delta-8 THC Safe?
We’ve mentioned a lot of concerns surrounding the synthetic process behind delta-8 THC products. Inhalation or ingestion of the acids used in delta-8 synthesis can cause adverse effects. Many of these chemicals require industrial protective equipment, while others are relatively safe and available on store shelves.
Nonetheless, chemical acids used in varnish or cleaning products don’t belong in the human body.
If the trace solvents are above acceptable levels after production, consuming delta-8 in any form could lead to serious harm.
Is Delta-8 Safe to Vape or Smoke?
Yes, delta-8 THC is safe to vape or smoke – if it’s adequately filtered and lab tested. Unfortunately, many delta-8 THC products are sold in corner stores and other retail outlets without cannabis knowledge.
These are the locations where delta-8 likely poses the most significant risks. Only properly filtered, tested delta-8 is safe to vape or smoke.
However, consider that, regardless of quality, smoking carries well-known risks. Vaping is the preferable inhalation method due to the lack of combustion.
Has Delta-8 Caused Serious Health Risks?
Yes, delta-8 THC causes serious health risks. According to the FDA and poison control centers, thousands of adverse event reports were recorded between December 2020 and February 2022.
- 55% needed medical attention
- 82% of unintentional exposures involved children
- Adverse event reports cite serious reactions, including seizures, tremors, vomiting, and hallucinations
- One pediatric case led to death
Is Delta-8 Derived from the Cannabis Sativa Plant?
Yes, delta-8 is derived from the cannabis sativa plant. It’s a naturally-occurring minor cannabinoid in all cannabis cultivars, including low-THC “hemp.”
However, delta-8 products are synthesized from CBD rather than directly extracted from the plant matter.
Is Delta-9 THC Safer Than Delta-8?
Although adverse events are well-documented, there isn’t enough evidence about the long-term effects of delta-8 consumption. We know D8 can be immediately harmful, but delta-9 also triggers reactions that may require medical attention. We, therefore, can’t conclude which one is safer.
But if you look at the cannabinoids as individual products, delta-9 is regulated in some states and doesn’t require isomerization. Delta-8, conversely, isn’t regulated and requires toxic chemicals for synthesis.
From a consumer perspective, delta-9 THC is safer than delta-8. Until manufacturers replace isomerization in favor of a safer process, delta-8 could pose a health risk.
Can Delta-8 THC Cause Liver Damage?
We couldn’t find a reliable source to confirm or deny whether delta-8 THC causes liver damage. However, delta-9 has not been associated with liver toxicity. It’s safe to assume (but not conclude) that delta-8 is equally harmless.
Is Delta-8 THC Legal to Buy?
No, delta-8 THC isn’t legal to buy, but it isn’t illegal either. However, this pendulum could swing in either direction at any time. Stay aware of state laws.
5 Things the FDA Says About Delta-8 THC
We’ve cited the FDA a few times, and their stance now is clear. However, we want to highlight some other key points and concerns.
Regarding the toxic organic solvents and synthetic acids, the FDA warns that “if consumed or inhaled, these chemicals…and the by-products created during synthesis can be harmful.”
The FDA also reminds us of the type of people we might be buying from, warning that products may be made in “uncontrolled or unsanitary settings.”
1) Delta-8 THC is Confirmed to be Harmful
According to the FDA, delta-8 THC caused 661 health complications between December 2020 and July 2021. However, the demographics are particularly disturbing.
Of the adverse events reported, 41% were accidental consumption. But out of those incidents, 77% happened in “pediatric patients” younger than 18.
The total overview isn’t much better. A shocking 39% of all adverse event patients were also under the age of 18. Keep in mind that this takes voluntary and involuntary consumption into account, meaning minors also deliberately consume this product.
If those facts aren’t scary enough, the FDA also says 18% of the 661 individuals were hospitalized, with some sent to the intensive care unit (ICU). Children were also among those patients.
2) Delta-8 THC Extraction is Toxic
Unlike CBD, clean CO2 extraction – or any other conventional cannabis extraction technique – won’t allow us to rearrange CBD’s molecular structure. Unfortunately, the delta-8 THC process is exponentially worse.
The FDA warns that the CBD isomerization process requires dangerous household chemicals. However, the easy accessibility to such substances naturally inspired a few people to make delta-8 at home – something nobody should do.
Inhaling or ingesting such toxins creates a greater health risk than any conventional cannabinoid extraction method.
Compounding the problem is that these products can be produced in “unsanitary conditions,” risking further contamination beyond solvent traces.
3) Delta-8 THC is Not FDA Approved or Regulated
Delta-8 THC products owe much of their success to word-of-mouth and clever marketing. But the FDA warns that none of these products are regulated or approved. Without any oversight, vendors make exaggerated or unfounded claims about potential health benefits.
Similarly, delta-8 also appeals to conventional THC consumers to circumvent cannabis laws.
Another consequence is that lack of regulation means a lack of consistency. The FDA explains that they have no way to guarantee the accuracy of delta-8 THC product labels, nor a way to ensure safety.
4) Delta-8 THC Can Still Make You High
Delta-8 THC makes you high. The effects are milder, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t strong enough to impair you. Depending on the potency and various biological factors, delta-8 THC can still cause substantial intoxication.
Keep in mind, any level of intoxication can be dangerous in certain situations, like driving or operating heavy machinery.
5) Delta-8 THC Can Be Tempting to Kids and Pets
Delta-8 THC is available in the same array of products as CBD and delta-9 THC. These include edibles like gummies, candy, cookies, chocolate, and similar treats. All of them naturally catch a child’s attention and are undoubtedly responsible for many – if not most – of accidental poisonings.
The product also poses a risk to pets. An increase in animal exposure to delta-8 proves that some dogs and cats have no issue consuming cannabis edibles.
What do Other Cannabis Markets Say About Delta-8 THC?
According to one of our sources in the Canadian cannabis market, Canada banned delta-8 THC as of December 2022, pending further research following health risks associated with delta-8.
Canada is highly regulated compared to the U.S. Although delta-8 only lasted on Canadian store shelves for a few months, the isomerization process was heavily monitored for safety.
Nonetheless, reports about delta-8 poisoning in the U.S. and little research into the products were enough to suspend sales indefinitely.
But to a Canadian, this news was as unremarkable as the launch of delta-8.
Part of the reason U.S. consumers gravitate to delta-8 is due to a federal law banning delta-9. For Canadians, delta-8 is just another cannabis product. For U.S. citizens in states without recreational or medical cannabis, delta-8 is a close 2nd to its illegal counterpart.
However, following a direct discussion with a brand representative, our source learned of a proprietary, natural method to create delta-8 without isomerization. The representative remained vague about the actual process, likely due to its proprietary nature.
Unfortunately, the ban stopped this project in its tracks. But if the manufacturer’s claims are true, this could revolutionize delta-8 production.
Delta-8 Future and Safety Concerns
Delta-8 THC is almost alien compared to its cleaner counterparts. Unfortunately, we can’t safely say whether delta-8 THC’s benefits outweigh the risks.
Over two years, a few thousand adverse events aren’t much compared to hospitalizations and deaths from tobacco or alcohol use. But delta-8 offers cause for concern. Specifically, how will an unregulated market maintain safety standards as more products flood store shelves and online outlets?
Self-regulation through competition is the only option. And while this ultimately became the norm for CBD, the rush to sell delta-8 exceeds the desire to ensure safety.
We recommend you carefully research a vendor before buying delta-8 THC, and always consult a medical specialist.
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