When people hear the term “delta variant” they’re likely to think it refers to the highly contagious and dangerous delta variant of covid. But there’s another delta variant, delta-8 THC, that is hitting the headlines…and store shelves. Delta-8 THC, a less intoxicating form of marijuana (delta-9 THC), is rapidly gaining in popularity among recreational pot users. Dubbed “marijuana lite” or “diet weed”,  delta 8 is generally considered to be a safe and legal way to get high. But both these notions are now being challenged. 

Safety First

Delta 8 occurs naturally in both hemp and cannabis, but in very small amounts. To get an adequate supply, producers synthesize (chemically produce) it from hemp-derived CBD. But this process creates serious safety concerns.

The Society of Cannabis Clinicians (SCC), a nonprofit organization that promotes research and disseminates accurate information about cannabis, has no problem with delta 8 itself;  it’s the manufacturing process that’s at fault. Synthesizing delta 8 typically involves the use of potentially dangerous solvents and household toxic chemicals. Contamination is another potential problem because there is no quality control. According to the SCC, while there might be some reputable companies that produce delta 8, For the most part, the companies that are making these products are untrained, garage chemists who are not likely to be following GMP [Good Manufacturing Practice] product standards.” So buyers beware! 

Because of the lack of regulation, delta 8 poses potentially serious health risks to users and both the CDC and FDA have issued health advisories warning of these dangers. The FDA and poison centers around the country have received about 700 reports of serious adverse effects from delta 8. Many of these adverse events, including severe vomiting, hallucinations, and loss of consciousness, have resulted in trips to emergency rooms and/or hospitalizations. Another safety issue is that delta 8 comes in a variety of forms, including vapes, tinctures, lotions, gummies, brownies, and other tasty tidbits. Unfortunately, increasing numbers of children and pets have become extremely ill after inadvertently ingesting such delta-8 edibles.

Legal Issues

Safety issues aside, the belief that delta 8 is legal is also false. Although the majority of states have legalized medical and/or recreational marijuana, which is derived from cannabis, it’s still designated as a federally illegal Schedule 1 drug. However, delta 8  is widely believed to be legal because it’s typically derived from hemp rather than from cannabis, and hemp and hemp products like CBD, were made federally legal with the passage of the 2018 Farm Bill. Nonetheless, the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), which determines the legality of a drug, has designated delta 8 as a Schedule I illegal drug.  The reasoning behind this is that when a drug is produced that has similar effects as–or is chemically similar to–a Schedule 1 illegal substance, this new drug is also illegal. In addition, at least 18 states–most of which have legalized medical and/or recreational marijuana–have banned or restricted the use or sales of delta 8 in some way. 

Illegal Marketing 

Although most delta-8 users are in it for the high, consumers are increasingly using it for medicinal purposes. Delta 8 is an analogue of delta-9 THC, which has proven antinausea, anti-anxiety, analgesic, and appetite stimulating properties. So it’s purported that delta 8 does as well.  While this may be true, unfortunately there haven’t been any studies that can confirm these or other health benefits of delta 8, much less the safety of the drug. By contrast, there have been hundreds of well-controlled clinical studies substantiating the health benefits of delta-9 THC and CBD, as well as their safety when used appropriately. But lack of proof hasn’t stopped producers of delta 8 from touting a myriad of health benefits, including increasing relaxation, energy, and appetite as well as relieving pain and nausea. 

Such assertions create another serious legal liability for delta 8 businesses because making unproven health claims is illegal. The FDA recently put out a statement that it is “concerned by the proliferation of products that contain delta-8 THC and are marketed for therapeutic or medical uses, although they have not been approved by the FDA. Selling unapproved products with unsubstantiated therapeutic claims is not only a violation of federal law, but also can put consumers at risk, as these products have not been proven to be safe or effective.”

The bottom line is that delta 8 is illegal, potentially dangerous, and has no proven health benefits. Therefore, for now, we strongly advice against using delta-8 THC for medical or recreational purposes. 

Mikhail Kogan, MD

Medical Director,  GW Center for Integrative Medicine 

Associate Professor of Medicine, George Washington University 

Joan Liebmann-Smith, PhD

Medical Sociologist

Drs. Kogan and Liebmann-Smith are co-authors of Medical Marijuana: Dr. Kogan’s Evidence-Based Guide to the Health Benefits of Cannabis and CBD (Avery/Penguin, Oct. 2021)

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