Cannabinoid enthusiasts around the country are exploring a new type of high in the form of Delta-8. This lab-synthesized cannabinoid can be extracted from hemp, giving it enough legal leeway to encourage a huge boom in consumer popularity over the past three years. Consumers say Delta-8 provides a milder high than its close cousin, Delta-9 (the cannabis industry’s standard THC).

According to a New York Times feature, Delta-8, “is the fastest growing segment of products derived from hemp (…) with an estimated consumer sales of at least $10 million.”[1]

Anecdotally, state and local governments have noted an uptick in medical issues stemming from peoples’ recreational use of Delta-8,[2] and a handful of states have already responded by banning or restricting its sale.[3] In some ways, the mixed signals of enthusiasm, confusion, and fear surrounding Delta-8 mimics the chatter around CBD in recent years.

Delta-8 is a naturally-occurring cannabinoidin both hemp and cannabis with noted medical benefits[4] and psychoactive effects.[5] However, a perfect storm of politics, science, and social movements have muddied the average joe’s understanding of just what makes Delta-8 so special.

When did we discover Delta-8?

Humans have cultivated hemp for at least 4,000 years[6] and smoked it for roughly as long. Our fascination with the plants’ practical and recreational uses span millennia, and we’re still discovering new aspects of the plant today. 

In the 1960s, American scientists were able to isolate the distinct chemical composition of several cannabinoids, including Delta-8.[7] In the 1970s, the National Lung Institute tested the effects of Delta-9, Delta-8, and CBD on mice.[8] Their findings suggested that Delta-8 may have an innate ability to kill cancerous cells.[9] While this study was promising, roadblocks like the low quantities of Delta-8 present in hemp and cannabis prohibition deterred further study.

Basics on cannabis chemistry

Delta-8, Delta-9, and CBD are some of the earliest identified cannabinoids. Today scientists estimate cannabis contains around 400 unique chemical compounds,[10] around 100[11] of which are capable of binding to the body’s endocannabinoid system (ECS). We do not know the full extent of ECS’s regulation within the body, but evidence suggests ECS is critical to maintaining health on a cellular level.[12] Consequently, endocannabinoids receptors exist in the brain, organs, connective tissues, glands, and immune cells.[13]

The human body can change its regulatory signals in response to new cannabinoids in the system, often with positive physiological effects. Aside from Delta-8, cannabinoids like CBG, CBN, and CBC are attracting attention from researchers and enthusiasts alike in the search for new wellness products. Currently, vaporizer equipment provides the most precise method for consumers to extract specific cannabinoids from dry herb.

Here’s where it gets tricky.Delta-8 occurs naturally in both cannabis and hemp plants, but at relatively low levels – too low for it to be simply be extracted, sold, and create profit. Instead, most Delta-8 products come from other cannabinoids that have been converted through an isomerization process.[14] This means most Delta-8 products are synthesized rather than natural.

While it is possible to safely synthesize Delta-8 with precise chemistry, the basic method is simple enough that people have successfully made Delta-8 at home by combining CBD with various acids. Delta-8’s simple synthesis process and unregulated status combined offer an unfortunate opportunity to unscrupulous producers.

GairLauicus, Chief Science Officer at High Purity Natural Products explained, "a disreputable manufacturer of D8-THC could use bleach, nail polish remover, or other hazardous solvents in the process, which, if not adequately removed, have well-documented and dangerous interactions with the human body. There is no way to know what steps were undertaken in the post-processing of D8-THC before it makes it to a consumer."[15]

Furthermore, synthesized Delta-8 has not been tested for its long-term effects. Greg Gerdeman, PhD, put it this way, “this is drug development as far as I’m concerned — taking one molecule and turning it into another molecule.”

Is Delta-8 a type of THC?

Chemically, Delta-8 has a tetrahydrocannabinol structure just like Delta-9, making it a form of THC.[16]While scientists may find this classification useful, it’s causing a lot of confusion for lawmakers and consumers.

The federal legal distinction between hemp and cannabis hinges on the amount of Delta-9 present in the plant. As of 2018, American farmers can legally grow, harvest, and sell hemp plants.[17] They can also legally extract chemical compounds from hemp. Initially, this spurred production of hemp-derived CBD as a health and wellness product.

Is Delta-8 legal?

It depends who you ask. Producers’ ability to extract Delta-8 from hemp means that the substance technically comes from a chain of legally-permitted actions. 

However, lawmakers at the state and federal levels vary in opinion as to whether Delta-8 is protected by the 2018 Farm Bill’s legalization of hemp-extracted compounds. Delta-8 received no special attention in the bill, but legislators did prohibit the extraction of Delta-9 toprevent THC production and sale.

BCLP Digest illustrates the conflicting legal definitions affecting Delta-8. “In the DEA’s recently released ‘Orange Book,’ Delta-8 THC is listed as another name for Tetrahydrocannabinols (…) This recent development seems to run afoul of the Controlled Substances Act’s definition of Tetrahydrocannabinols which ‘does not include any material, compound, mixture, or preparation that falls within the definition of hemp’ set forth in the 2018 Farm Bill.”[18]

Delta-8’s murky status has a bigger downfall – lack of recognition also means a lack of regulation, and states have been quick to step in. As of June 2021, fifteen states so far have responded to the rise of Delta-8 by passing laws restricting or banning its sale.[19] So, while federal law is unclear, be sure to check your state’s laws on Delta-8.

Does Delta-8 get you high?

In short, yes. Delta-8 is a tetrahydrocannabinol just like Delta-9. Anecdotal reports from cannabis journalists and retailers describe the Delta-8 high as milder than traditional cannabis, with a lower rate of paranoia.[20]

Is Delta-8 safe to consume?

Delta-8 does have psychoactive properties, but the high it creates is broadly considered less potent than Delta-9. However, the lack of regulation surrounding Delta-8 means producers also don’t have clear guidelines on quality and safety.

The good news: you can receive the benefits of Delta-8 at home without dropping some CBD in acid. Simply pick up your favorite weed vaporizer and set the temperature to XX degrees to experience the natural form of Delta-8.