What is delta-8, a synthetic weed product? Does delta-8 get you high?

Delta-8 is on the rise in the U.S, and no, it’s not another COVID-19 variant. Nicknamed “diet weed” or “weed lite,” delta-8 is a weed product that seems more readily available––and less regulated––than other cannabis goods.

Chemical & Engineering News warned of the “delta-8-THC craze” over the summer, and sponsored buying guides in publications such as Men’s Journal and the Observer advertise vendors selling the drug. In January 2022, the Journal of Cannabis Research published the largest study to date exploring exactly what it feels like to consume delta-8.

Given that it’s fairly new as a commercial product, you might be wondering what exactly it is, why it’s increasingly common, and, most importantly, whether it’s legal and safe. We have answers.

How is delta-8 different from “normal” weed?

Weed usually refers to cannabis products that contain delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol. Tetrahydrocannabinol is a mouthful of a scientific word that is usually shortened to THC. It’s the ingredient responsible for weed’s psychoactive effects. Delta-8 THC is a related but slightly different molecule—an isomer of delta-9 THC, meaning its chemical formula is identical but has molecules arranged in a different way. Delta-8, as it’s usually referred to, occurs naturally in very small trace amounts, so most commercial delta-8 is completely synthetic, derived from cannabidiol in hemp.

So delta-8 does get you high? What does the high from delta-8 feel like?

Yes! According to science, delta-8 is less potent than delta-9 THC in terms of what it does to your brain.

In the recent Cannabis Research study, Jessica Kruger and Daniel Kruger, professors of community health and health behavior at the University at Buffalo, analyzed data from more than 500 customers of Bison Botanics, a craft cannabinoid manufacturer. They asked customers to fill out online surveys about their experience with delta-8 and how they compared it with delta-9 as well as pharmaceutical anti-anxiety drugs. (The partnership with Bison Botanics just involved data collection; the Krugers didn’t receive any money from the company). Most reported it as a gentler high. One respondent described it as “delta-9’s nicer younger sibling.”

The researchers found that delta-8 offers something of a middle ground between “regular weed” and CBD in terms of the feeling. “The part that was most impressive, and most surprising to us, is that delta-8 seems to combine the real positive aspects of the THC experience like relaxation and pain relief and to some extent, euphoria,” Daniel Kruger says. “And at the same time, there is a much more moderate impact on cognitive distortions, like altered sense of time, difficulties with short-term memory, difficulties of concentrating. It was also much lower in the more affective or anxiety and paranoia, or the distressing mental states that people can get with delta-9 THC.”

“With Delta-8, I am able to perform my normal day to day activities, i.e., no couch lock, paranoia, munchies,” wrote a study participant quoted in the paper. “I am able to function well at work under the influence of Delta 8 whereas under the influence on Delta 9 at work, I am paranoid and feel less motivated to do work activities.”

OK, so … I can just buy this stuff? Even if marijuana isn’t legal where I live?

Maybe.

Delta-8’s legal status is more, shall we say, fluid than delta-9 THC’s. Although weed has been legalized both medically recreationally in many states, marijuana/delta-9 THC/THC (however you want to refer to it) is still a Schedule 1 controlled substance and thus federally illegal. However, in 2018 the U.S. Department of Agriculture passed the new Agriculture Improvement Act, which established hemp and any of its derivatives as federally legal as long as they contain less than 0.3 percent of delta-9 THC. This loophole is what allows a THC-containing product like delta-8 to run rampant.

“There has been what I would interpret as a misinterpretation of the legality of turning cannabidiol into delta-8-THC as a way to circumvent the law,” says Dr. Ethan Russo, who has studied cannabis for years and serves on the United States Pharmacopeia Cannabis Expert Panel. “There’s considerable controversy about this.”

A number of states (see here for a run-through) have started to ban delta-8, many claiming that, despite being derived from hemp, it’s still a controlled substance. In states where it is allowed, delta-8 products can be found at vape shops, head shops, and even some gas stations. There are also a number of online vendors. Because of the lack of federal regulation surrounding delta-8, the laws regarding age restrictions vary state by state, though most require shoppers to be over 21.

Can you smoke it?

Smoking it is option, in the form of a delta-8 flower, but experts emphasize that this does not mean it’s grown that way.

“You could buy delta-8 flower which is basically hemp flower that has been sprayed on with delta-8 chemical afterward,” says Greg Gerdeman, president of the digital hemp marketplace NASHCX. Most users, however, rely on other methods. “The modality in which people are using delta-8 seems to be a bit safer than smoking delta-9. We don’t see as many people smoking delta-8—it’s more edibles, tinctures,” Jessica Kruger says.

Hmm … I’m stuck on the part where this is a synthetic product that is being sold via a loophole. Is delta-8 really that safe?

It’s a little complicated. It’s reasonable enough to think that delta-8 THC itself is probably fine to consume, but experts still have questions. “We know about the safety of cannabis because cannabis has been around for 5,000 years,” says Dr. Peter Grinspoon, a physician at Massachusetts General Hospital and cannabis specialist. “It seems unlikely that this cannabinoid would be malignantly dangerous, but we actually don’t know because it just hasn’t been studied.”

The main concern Grinspoon and many other experts have about delta-8 is about its regulation, or rather lack thereof. Delta-8 is technically part of the supplement industry, which is not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration. “Who knows how they are manufacturing it, what they’re putting in, and if you’re really getting delta-8 THC, and what else you’re getting when you order it online,” says Grinspoon.

Many delta-8 manufacturers do send their products to accredited laboratories to be tested, and in some states, this step is required. For example, in Florida, products must be sent to labs, and those labs must test for both potency and potential contaminants. “There are a lot of really good manufacturers making really good products who care about what they’re doing,” says Masha Belinson, who works in corporate growth development at ACS Laboratory in Sun City Center, Florida. ACS screens for everything from pesticides to microbes and provides a certificate of analysis for each batch of delta-8 it tests. But there isn’t much labs can to do stop contaminated products from reaching consumers as long as they are below the limit on delta-9 THC. “We’re not the police,” says Belinson. “We’re an independent laboratory”

Chris Hudalla, chief scientific officer of ProVerde Laboratories, which is based in Massachusetts and Maine, explained that many of the samples that come to him are highly contaminated. He suspects that this is because delta-8 is a bit different than what weed manufacturers typically handle. “People who are making it are used to dealing with cannabis the plant,” Hudulla says. “But when they started doing synthetic chemistry on it, it’s no longer plant material. It’s now a synthetic chemistry process.”

Because of the lack of federal regulation, it is often up to the consumer to take the necessary precautions to make sure the delta-8 has been tested by a lab and that the lab report has come back clean.

That all sounds tricky to sort through.

Yep. Many experts argue that there wouldn’t be a need for delta-8 if weed were legalized.

“In an ideal world, we’d be studying these things, but there would be less need for delta-8 THC if cannabis was just legal,” Grinspoon says. “People would be craving these other cannabinoids less if they had legal, safe, affordable access to medical and recreational cannabis. They wouldn’t have to be doing these workarounds.”