While many industry observers posit that Delta-8’s rise can be attributed to consumers in states that haven’t legalized marijuana, hemp businesses see a lot of sales even in states that are home to adult-use marijuana markets. | Susan Montoya Brya/AP Photo
A seeming loophole in federal law is allowing people to buy products designed to get them high.
Paul ImOberstag’s small hemp farm in Banner, Ill., survived the bottoming out of prices in the CBD market and the pandemic.
Then, Delta-8 THC came along.
In the span of a few months, Banner Harvest went from selling about 15 pounds of CBD-rich hemp flower a month to “basically zero” pounds. The reason: All of the wholesale customers were now stocking Delta-8 THC, a close cousin of the chief psychoactive compound in marijuana, Delta-9 THC.
Delta-8’s meteoric rise is reminiscent of the early days of the CBD boom. Seemingly overnight, the products were on the shelves of gas stations, vape shops and numerous e-commerce outlets.
But there’s one big difference: Delta-8 products are being marketed as a “legal” way for people to get stoned.
The cannabinoid’s rise has deeply divided the hemp industry and its advocates. Some hemp producers are staying away, fearful that a crackdown is imminent. Others are hoping to exploit the regulatory gray area to rake in cash.
Entrepreneurs like Jeff Gray and Josh Wurzer of SC Labs, a cannabis testing facility in California, worry that the Delta-8 trend is another vaping crisis waiting to happen. Starting in 2019, nearly 3,000 people were hospitalized and 68 died due to lung illnesses that were largely connected to illegal marijuana vaping products.
“States are behind the eight ball on this one,” Wurzer said. “This is taking the CBD and synthesizing a new compound using other chemicals that can introduce contamination and byproducts that are harmful.”
What exactly is Delta-8?
Delta-8 THC is an isomer of Delta-9 THC, the compound responsible for marijuana’s intoxicating effects. That means the two are largely the same compound, with slight atomic differences. The vast majority of Delta-8 products aren’t extracted from cannabis. Instead, producers convert plant-derived CBD into Delta-8 THC using a chemical process called isomerization. The process combines CBD with a solvent, acid and heat to cause the reaction that turns CBD into THC.
“Cannabis is cleaner than the water you drink, it’s so heavily tested,” said Gray, referring to California’s regulated marijuana market. But Delta-8 is a “highly unregulated industry. There aren’t clear requirements.”
When Congress passed the 2018 farm bill legalizing hemp, it was eager to distinguish the crop from marijuana. Hemp and marijuana are the same species of plant, cannabis sativa L., but hemp can’t contain more than 0.3 percent THC. The distinction is legal, not scientific.
“It’s not clear whether [Delta-8 THC products] are illegal under the 2018 farm bill,” said Jonathan Miller, general counsel for the U.S. Hemp Roundtable. “It is clear that it violates the spirit of the law.”
Published: March 29, 2021
Founder & Interim Editor of L.A. Cannabis News