Products containing the cannabis compound delta-8 are sometimes marketed as “diet weed” or “light THC,” offering a milder high than what people probably think is in traditional weed products. But the drug can still be dangerous, and an increasing number of users are calling poison centers for help.
Calls to America’s Poison Centers about delta-8 products spiked 82% from 2021 to 2022, the group said in a recent report, with 3,358 exposures managed in 2022.
Provisional data for 2023 shows the trend leveling off. But with requests for help still numbering in the thousands, public health experts remain concerned that users who think they’re getting something mild may be getting more than they bargained for.
What is delta-8?
Delta-8 THC, or delta-8 tetrahydrocannabinol, is one of more than 100 chemical compounds found in the Cannabis sativa plant. It’s an isomer or chemical cousin of sorts to delta-9 THC, the molecule that creates a high when someone ingests cannabis. Delta-9 is the most abundant form of THC in weed and is responsible for most of the psychoactive effects. Delta-8 acts on the brain the same way delta-9 THC, but it’s less potent.
The compound occurs naturally in small amounts in the plant. To make delta-8 products, scientists typically make synthetic versions in the lab. Delta-8 is “available in many forms, including gummies, chocolate, candies, cookies, vaping cartridges, infused drinks, and even breakfast cereal,” according to the report from America’s Poison Centers.
These products became popular in late 2020, coming onto the market through a loophole in the 2018 Farm Bill that allowed for the farming and sale of hemp, a cannabis plant with low THC.
There are no large medical studies that show exactly how it works or what it does, but people who use delta-8 say it can help with some of the things regular cannabis does — such as sleep, anxiety or pain — but doesn’t have intoxication effects that are as intense as with some other THC products.
Dr. Daniel Kruger, a research scientist and research associate professor at the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences at the University at Buffalo, State University of New York who studies cannabis, says people in his research often say they like delta-8 because they can still function when they use it.
“A lot of our participants are saying ‘yeah, I can do my day-to-day activities while on delta-8 and get the relief I need, but it doesn’t make me high like delta-9. That’s what I use on the weekend,’ ” he said.
Users can’t be sure what’s inside
In 2022, the US Food and Drug Administration issued a warning to the public about delta-8, saying the products might be marketed in such a way as to put “the public health at risk and should especially be kept out of reach of children and pets.”
The FDA regulates drug products with cannabis or cannabis-derived compounds like it does with other pharmaceutical and medical products, but not products like delta-8. Still, it got more than 100 adverse event reports about delta-8 from the public by the end of 2022. Most of the cases involved adults, and more than half required help from a hospital or emergency services. Adverse events included hallucinations, vomiting, anxiety, dizziness, confusion and loss of consciousness.
Dr. Kait Brown, clinical managing director of America’s Poison Centers, said the majority of the calls that poison centers get about delta-8 fall into two categories: kids who have accidentally ingested the products or adults who had bad reactions to the drug. In some cases, the user didn’t anticipate its strength.
Unlike regulated medical products like acetaminophen, which must have uniform ingredients and doses, the contents of delta-8 products vary from product to product — sometimes even from batch to batch.
“Just like any unregulated product, you can’t be certain what you’re getting or the concentration you’re getting, either,” Brown said.
Delta-8 products are also inconsistently labeled. They may even be identified as “hemp products” that consumers may think are non-psychoactive, but there’s no guarantee that they are.
Brown said that even though delta-8 is often touted as less potent, a high enough dose “still can have those most potent THC effects, and some of these products are pretty high dosage.”
“People may feel a false sense of security with delta-8 being the ‘lightweight drug,’” Brown said.
She also encourages people who buy delta-8 products to store them safely so children can’t get to them.
A lot of the products look kid-friendly and come in the form of gummies, hard candy, cookies and even breakfast cereal. The packaging may even be hard to distinguish from that of a brand-name food product. Last year, the Federal Trade Commission sent cease and desist letters to companies that made THC products that were packaged to look like Doritos, Nerds Ropes and other junk food.
In states where the products are legal, there are generally no age restrictions, so even children can easily buy delta-8 online or at local convenience stores, gas stations and head shops.
Legal gray area
Some legal cannabis stores sell delta-8, but Kruger says the products seem to be most popular in states where people don’t have legal access to recreational or medicinal cannabis.
To distinguish between hemp and cannabis plants, Congress defined hemp as any part of the Cannabis sativa plant that has no more than 0.3% delta-9 by dry weight.
“Some people read that and they were like ‘oh, delta-9, but what about if I slightly change the chemical structure, it’s not delta-9 anymore,’” said Dr. Cassidy LoParco, a delta-8 expert at George Washington University. “So technically, it’s hemp.”
States that updated their controlled substance laws to reflect the changes in the Farm Bill essentially opened the door for stores to start selling delta-8.
At least 17 states have banned delta-8 since then and the products are “severely restricted” in seven more as of November 2023, according to the National Cannabis Industry Association. Other legislatures are considering restrictions. But how the products are banned varies by state, and just because there are bans doesn’t mean the products aren’t sold openly at convenience stores, the association said.
LoParco said there were efforts with the 2023 Farm Bill to address the loophole and regulate delta-8, but Congress pushed approval of the bill off to 2024.
Delta-8’s new cousins
Delta-8 may be the most popular of these cannabis compound products, LoParco said, but other varieties have more recently entered the market. Customers may now see HHC, THC-O and THC-P sold alongside delta-8 products.
“They’ve become a lot more popular because they’re marketed as being much stronger than the typical cannabis,” LoParco said about the new varieties.
THC-P is marketed as 10 to 33 times stronger than delta-9 THC, she said, but there are no good medical studies to support the claim.
Until there are more regulations on the products, experts said, poison centers will still get calls about delta-8 and other cannabis products.
If people are interested in using them, experts advise getting them from a reputable source like a dispensary. Kruger said there are also products that are tested, and the labels will show the testing results.
“That’s one way of knowing what you’re getting,” Kruger said.
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