Delta-8 THC Debate: Unintended Consequences and Growing Pains Amid An Unregulated Industry

delta 8 thc cbd hemp

By J.J. McCoy, Senior Managing Editor, New Frontier Data

As the popularity of delta-8 THC continues to gain currency, state regulators and lawmakers are playing some legislative catch-up to rein it in, if not ban it outright as some of the largest U.S. cannabis companies intend.

As previously reported, delta-8 THC’s legal status is ambivalent at best: The nature of the loophole having allowed for its production and sale was couched in the legal interpretation of “synthetic”: The 2018 Farm Bill states that all cannabinoids derived from hemp with a delta-9 THC concentration of less than 0.3% are lawful, but adds that synthetically derived” THC remains illegal. Though delta-8 THC is organically present in some hemp cultivars, it can also be readily derived from CBD molecules collected from hemp – allowing for delineation of delta-8 THC to become ever more blurred.

In August 2020, the DEA released its Interim Final Rule for hemp, which ostensibly bans delta-8 THC along with all variations of tetrahydrocannabinol molecules. However, as commonly bedevils the legal cannabis industry, patchwork enforcement of the rule has lacked uniformity, both as legal challenges questioning the DEA’s authority to legislate it via policy and the entrance of a cannabis-tolerant Biden administration thus far had inspired a mostly passive stance from the agency. As of last month, 34 states (and the District of Columbia) were reportedly allowing production, sales, possession, or consumption of delta-8 THC, while 16 had restricted or banned such (with legislative reviews pending in five states).

Meantime, of course, cannabinoid extractors facing a massive surplus of hemp-derived CBD seized upon the opportunity. While some producers and marketers are touting delta-8 THC’s purported benefits for relieving pain, anxiety, and nausea, others are brazenly exploiting its psychoactive properties, marketing it as a kind of “marijuana-lite”. Meanwhile, the nationwide lack of product standards or consistent dosing recommendations are raising concerns among hemp industry advocates, public health officials, and legal cannabis producers alike.

As reported this week in Chemical Engineering and News, concerns range beyond unintended consequences from unidentified by-products and lack of regulatory oversight, to producers cutting corners in favor of profit motive over either sound chemistry or professional ethics. Kyle Boyar, staff research associate at the University of California San Diego’s Center for Medicinal Cannabis Research, was quoted in fearing that “a lot of irresponsible production is going on in the sense that most of these people are getting their information from online forums, and many of them aren’t necessarily trained chemists.”

In a pharmaceutical laboratory’s environment, Ph.D. chemists ensure that products do not include harmful unconsumed reactants. But with unregulated delta-8 THC production, no one is reliably measuring pH levels or testing for strong acids and residual metals left behind through the process, much less tracking health effects or risks posed by the impurities.

To date, the only reported – and very small – clinical trial of delta-8 THC was observed more than 25 years ago, when Raphael Mechoulam, famed professor of medicinal chemistry at Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the former president of the International Cannabinoid Research Society, administered it to eight pediatric cancer patients in conjunction with chemotherapy sessions. By Mechoulam’s own account, “no one has taken delta-8 [THC] and delta-9 [THC] and given them to healthy people and tracked the difference. And even the effects of delta-9 [THC] depend greatly on the dose.”

The uncertainty amid politics and profits has been underscored by the U.S. Cannabis Council (USCC), which sponsored its own delta-8 THC study, including a summary that “the fact that it is being sold outside of the regulated marketplace with no oversight or testing and is readily available to children is alarming, and it presents a public health risk of potentially wider impact than the vape crisis.” The USCC’s sample testing of products purchased in eight different states reportedly found potentially harmful compounds including chromium, copper, lead, and nickel, along with unsafe solvents including acetone, dichloromethane, ethyl acetate, heptane, hexane, isopropanol, and methanol.

While the National Industrial Hemp Council is reportedly working with Congress to address issues at the federal level to preclude states’ intervention, Hemp Benchmarks is keeping running track of policy updates state-by-state. Perhaps nothing defines the issue more than the ironic battleground of Texas, where defenders of delta-8 THC recently fended off a bill in the state legislature to outlaw sales of the compound (whether in gas stations or distributed nationwide by mail) even while lawmakers have remained steadfast in prohibition of adult-use cannabis.

What can be generally agreed upon for the moment is that the controversy is indication of a maturing industry seeking safeguards and legitimacy. That legal cannabis companies and state governments from Colorado and California to New York are calling for federal intervention and nationwide regulation is further indication that the times indeed keep changing.