Cannabis reforms across the United States have led to an increase of cannabis derivatives like delta-8THC to hit the market and are particularly popular in states like Texas that still consider recreational cannabis use a crime.
Shayda Torabi, co-owner of RestartCBD and president of the Texas Hemp Coalition in Texas said interest in hemp derived cannabinoids like delta-8 is a result of the passing of the federal Farm Bill and House Bill 1325 in Texas.
“The reason that delta-8 exists predominantly in my opinion, so much in a marketplace like Texas, is because of the way that the Farm Bill and the Texas hemp bill were written and outlined,” said Torabi.
Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018 (the Farm Bill) was passed federally. The bill removed the ban classifying hemp as a controlled substance. In Texas, a similar measure was passed. House Bill 1325 was signed into law by Governor Greg Abbott in 2019, authorizing the production, manufacture, retail sale, and inspection of industrial hemp crops and products in Texas.
Hemp is a type of cannabis plant, like marijuana, but unlike marijuana it doesn’t produce delta-9THC, the most common form of THC, which is illegal at the federal level. The Farm Bill and HB 1325 allowed for hemp to be grown as long as it contained less than 0.3 percent THC.
The passing of the Farm Bill and HB 1325 gave rise to the cannabidiol (CBD) market. CBD is a compound found in large quantities in hemp. Delta-8THC can be found in both hemp and marijuana in small amounts. The legalization of hemp allowed manufacturers to produce delta-8THC from CBD.
Delta-8THC’s chemical structure closely resembles that of delta-9THC, therefore it behaves similarly in the body. Both compounds, when smoked or ingested bind to the same receptors in the brain, specifically the cannabinoid type 1 receptor.
“These are chemical compounds,” said Torabi. “It’s a structure of bonds and chains, delta-8 to delta-9 is just one chain removed, so chemically they’re very structurally similar.”
A research study published on the National Library of Medicine’s website found that delta-8’s reduced potency has a weaker effect on the CB1 receptor, which causes a milder high compared to delta-9. Under HB 1325, delta-8’s low THC concentration qualifies it as “lawful marijuana extract.”
In October 2021, the Texas Department of State Health Services classified delta-8 as an illegal substance on its website in an attempt to shut down production of products containing delta-8THC. The move was challenged in a lawsuit brought against the agency by Austin CBD dispensary Hometown Hero because it contradicted federal and state hemp laws.
In November 2021, State district court Judge Jan Soifer granted a temporary injunction against the state because the DSHS didn’t comply with the state’s rule-making requirements, according to a report from the Texas Tribune.
Following the injunction, DSHS made a request to the Texas Supreme Court to reinstate the ban on delta-8THC, but the high court declined their request to hear the case. As of now, delta-8 is legal in Texas as the ongoing lawsuit determines whether DSHS can outlaw delta-8.
“There are a couple of bills that have particular language against delta-8,” said Torabi. “You’re seeing delta-8 become the example of how this gets dealt with in a legal/political manner.”
People who use marijuana recreationally or for medicinal purposes in states like Texas where recreational use is illegal, have turned to using delta-8THC because of its accessibility and legality.
Rocco, a 36-year-old tech professional who asked to use his first name only, said he learned about delta-8THC from friends who manage a smoke shop in Austin. He said he prefers marijuana but worries about legal repercussions.
“The main appeal is that it’s legal to obtain,” said Rocco. “The fact that it’s a legal alternative and I don’t have to worry about driving with it in my car and I can get it from knowledgeable people is better than going to the black market to buy something illegal.”
Rocco said he smokes recreationally because he enjoys the psychoactive effects of marijuana but also because he says it helps him feel better emotionally.
“I have depression and anxiety,” said Rocco. “I’ve felt for a long time that THC has helped ease the symptoms along with the medications I take. I also just enjoy the social aspect, and I’m generally a recreational user.”
In states where marijuana is illegal, delta-8THC is a popular alternative. Some people, like Rocco, hope that delta-8 THC shifts attitudes in states like Texas and paves the way for regulated cannabis legalization in the state.
“I see it as a soft launch for cannabis legalization in Texas,” said Rocco. “I would love a legal cannabis industry that has government oversight and regulation where I know what I’m putting into my body has passed inspection and has health standards.”
As the delta-8THC industry expands, lack of regulation of the products has caused concern among public health officials. These concerns have prompted warnings from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
The FDA issued a warning on its website in May 2022 after receiving 104 reports of adverse events in patients who consumed delta-8THC between December 1, 2020, and February 28, 2022. According to the report, people reported hallucinations, vomiting, tremor, anxiety, dizziness, confusion, and loss of consciousness.
Of the 104 cases, 77% involved adults, 8% involved pediatric patients less than 18 years of age, and 15% did not report their age. 55% of the reported events “required intervention (e.g., evaluation by emergency medical services) or hospital admission.”
According to the FDA website, poison control centers received over 2,000 reports of exposure to delta-8 products between January 2021 and February 2022. Of those reports, one pediatric case resulted in death.
In September 2022, the CDC published a Health Alert Network Health Advisory on its website “to alert public health departments, healthcare professionals, first responders, poison control centers, laboratories, and the public to the increased availability of cannabis products containing delta-8 tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and the potential for adverse events due to insufficient labeling of products containing THC and cannabidiol (CBD).”
Kent Vrana, a professor of pharmacology at Penn State, told the New York Times that he doesn’t believe delta-8 is more dangerous than delta-9 but the lack of regulation is a cause for concern due to potential contaminants during the manufacturing process and the mislabeling of products.
In one study conducted by the US Cannabis Council in April 2021, researchers detected contaminants in the over-the-counter delta-8 products they tested. The study found that all tested samples contained delta-9THC at levels above the 0.3% limit outlined by the 2018 Farm Bill. Heavy metals such as lead were also detected in some of the samples.
Due to the lack of regulation of delta-8THC products, 15 states have banned delta-8 or all unregulated forms of THC according to the New York Times. This includes New York and Colorado, where recreational marijuana is legal.
Jessica Rico, who runs a small business out of her home called Rico Creations, sells CBD and delta-8 products online, at local events and music festivals in Austin. Her business initially offered only CBD based products like balms, gummies, and tinctures but expanded into the delta-8 market early this year because of the increased demand from customers.
Rico, who shared concerns about the lack of regulation of delta-8 products, said she works with two suppliers after extensively researching them to ensure quality. She trusts the products she’s selling are safe and accurately labeled.
“Certificates of analysis and proper labeling is important for me when purchasing products for my shop,” said Rico. “If I’m not sure on a product based on the label than I’m probably not going to buy it to resell.”
Rico said she worries about the lack of regulation of the products and tries to inform her customers about the potential risk of contaminants, including delta-9THC.
“There just isn’t enough regulation of labeling on delta-8 products,” said Rico. “I do my best to inform my customers about it, but most people just want to get high and not worry about the legalities.”