Google searches for the term “delta-8” grew by more than 850% in the United States between 2020 and 2021 (NYTimes.com). While some claim it is the more gentle and “legal” high that offers relaxation and pain relief, recent warnings from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) say delta-8 is a potentially dangerous drug that has resulted in thousands of accidental poisonings.
In a report by the FDA, misleading labels on products containing delta-8 THC are contributing to an increase in hospitalizations. Claims of these misleading labels, which officials believe may be tricking consumers into thinking they are taking a product that does not contain psychoactive effects, have health officials concerned.
Furthermore, these unregulated products that contain delta-8 THC are showing up across the United States at gas stations, smoke shops, and even online – without any age restrictions or regulations.
So why is this seemingly widely available product so dangerous? And what exactly is delta-8? There are a few things to know about delta-8 and why it poses such serious health risks for children and adults.
What is Delta-8?
Delta-8 THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) or what some refer to as “diet weed” or “marijuana-lite” is a psychoactive substance found in the Cannabis sativa plant. It is one of over 100 cannabinoids produced naturally by the cannabis plant, however, not in significant amounts. As a result, concentrated amounts of delta-8 THC are typically manufactured from hemp-derived cannabidiol (CBD).
The most common form of THC in cannabis plants is called delta-9 THC, a compound almost identical to delta-8 THC in chemical structure. As a consequence, these two act very similarly in the body. Both molecules bind to the same receptors in the brain, in particular, one called the cannabinoid type 1 (or CB1) which produces the high one experiences when one smokes cannabis or consumes a cannabis-infused edible (i.e “weed gummies”).
Research suggests, however, that delta-8 has a slightly weaker attachment to these CB1 receptors than delta-9, which tempers its potency and effect.
This alleged “milder” high appears to be what is causing delta-8 THC products to rise in popularity and demand. Additionally, the 2018 passing of the Farm Bill (also known as the Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018), which made hemp legal, contributed to delta-8’s rise in popularity as well. This act removed hemp and its byproducts (excluding cannabis) from the federal list of Schedule I controlled substances. It legalizes the production and sale of CBD products as long as those products contain less than 0.3% of THC.
What Are the Dangers of Delta-8?
Products that contain delta-8 THC have not been evaluated or approved by the FDA for safe use in any context. A consumer update issued by the FDA in 2021, warned of delta-8 THC’s serious health risks after receiving 104 reports of adverse events from delta-8 use.
Reports from December 2020 through July 2021 involved 22 individuals, some reported hallucinations, vomiting, difficulty standing, and passing out after consuming delta-8 THC products.
Some Delta-8 side effects reported include the following:
- Confusion and
- Loss of consciousness.
In the same year, September 2021, the CDC issued an alert about delta-8 THC’s possible adverse events, citing that the National Poison Data System had recorded 660 exposures to delta-8, with 18% (119 individuals), requiring hospitalization and 39% (258 individuals) affecting children. The report also warned that products may not be tested for contaminants like pesticides and heavy metals.
The lack of regulation in the U.S. around delta-8 is perhaps the greatest concern, one paper published by scientists at the University of Rochester found that none of the 27 delta-8 products tested contained the amount of delta-8 they claimed. Furthermore, all 27 of these products contained potentially harmful byproducts including other cannabinoids like delta-9 THC and heavy metals such as lead and mercury.
Due to the high dangers of potential contamination from the manufacturing process (heavy metals, pesticides, mold, residual chemicals, etc.) buying delta-8 products carry the same risks as buying black-market cannabis.
Between January 2021 and February 2022, national poison control centers handled over 2,000 calls about delta-8. 41% involved children accidentally ingesting products with delta-8 in them with one of those cases resulting in health. Consuming large quantities of delta-8 or unlabeled delta-9 THC can cause chronic vomiting, psychosis and addiction when used at high concentrations.
Manufacturing quality checks are essential in the production of these products for public health standards. The licensing of distributors, age limits, and labelling rules around the potency should be requirements for these labels in order to protect consumers. None of these protections exists at this time for delta-8 THC.
Summary of FDA Adverse Event Report Statistics:
Out of 104 adverse events involving delta-8 THC-containing products reported:
- 77% were adults; 8% were children less than 18 years old – 15% did not report an age.
- 55% required medical intervention (e.g., evaluation by emergency medical services) or hospital admission
- 66% experienced adverse events after ingestion of delta-8-containing food products (brownies, gummies, etc.)
- Adverse events included, but were not limited to:
- loss of consciousness
How Does Delta-8 Work?
According to the FDA, delta-8 THC has psychoactive and intoxicating effects similar to delta-9 THC. Delta-9 THC is the component responsible for the “high” people may experience from using cannabis and makes up 90% of the marijuana plant.
Delta-8 THC is a stereoisomer of delta-9 THC. Britannica defines stereoisomers as isomers (a type of molecule) that have the same composition but differ in orientation. Discover Magazine notes that delta-8 THC’s atomic composition is nearly identical to delta-9 THC in that they both bind to the same receptors in the brain, only differing slightly in how those elements are arranged.
Delta-8 vs. Delta-9
Delta-8 THC has been considered to be an effective painkiller because of its ability to attach to the CB1 receptors in the brain and nervous system, helping to manage chronic pain and preventing one’s body from experiencing muscle spasms or nerve dysfunction.
Delta-9 is the major naturally-occurring intoxicating component of the cannabis plant and when someone smokes or consumes delta-9 THC beyond a certain threshold, they experience a “high”.
Both delta-8 THC and delta-9 THC activate the body’s CB1 and CB2 cannabinoid receptors. Activating CB2 receptors primarily calms an overactive immune system by reducing inflammation.
THC vs. CBD
CBD is the non-psychoactive chemical compound found in marijuana, meaning it does not cause a “high”. It can be derived from hemp or non-hemp plants and affects different receptors in the brain. CBD is often considered to be safe and though it may have some benefits it is important to remember many CBD products are not approved by the FDA.
THC on the other hand is a psychoactive compound that produces a sense of euphoria when consumed. It is the chemical responsible for most of marijuana’s psychological effects. THC attaches to the receptors in the brain that affect a person’s memory, movements, thinking, concentration, coordination, pleasure and perception of time according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA).
Conclusion: Is Delta-8 THC Safe?
Ultimately, delta-8 products are unregulated and often mislabeled and come with great risk.
Despite its rise in popularity and reputation for being a “milder” version of delta-9 THC, delta-8 can still cause a high and produce potentially undesirable and even dangerous side effects including accidental poisoning. If any symptoms of poisoning occur, call a poison control hotline or 911 immediately.
To learn more about the risks involved in using any potentially harmful substance, give us a call today. If you or a loved one is struggling with substance use disorder, Riverside Recovery of Tampa is here to help. Our admissions team is standing by and ready to help you get back to the life you love.