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  • Why do brands continue to sell delta-8 THC products? Delta-8: Safety, Science, and Ethicality

Why do brands continue to sell delta-8 THC products? Delta-8: Safety, Science, and Ethicality

If you are at all familiar with the cannabis/hemp beverage markets, you have probably heard of delta-9 THC. Delta-9 THC is the main psychoactive compound found in cannabis, and it is what gives you the “high” effect, it’s the compound that has been the target of federal scrutiny for many decades, and is listed as a Schedule I drug.

There has been a rise in hemp-derived products also using the same compound, delta-9 THC. Because hemp is federally required to have a low concentration of THC – 0.03% by dry weight – operators have resorted to two solutions: 1) use a higher amount of hemp biomass to eventually get mother liquor that is high in THC and 2) chemically convert THC from CBD.

But before this (and still today) there was another compound that some mainstream players as well as fringe brands used instead: delta-8 THC. Many have called delta-8 “diet weed”, because while it is very similar in molecular structure to delta-9 THC, it typically produces a less intense psychoactive effect.

I even tried some delta-8 gummies back in college, when someone convinced me that it was just a scientific workaround and basically the same thing as delta-9 THC. My experiences with this product were certainly… varied.

So is delta-8 THC safe? Should it be as ubiquitous as delta-9 THC, and be considered just an alternative cannabinoid?

I have done the research and talked to experts in the field, and unfortunately, I have to say, delta-8 THC is not safe, tested, or proven for human consumption.  I also believe that if a company is building its brand on delta-8 THC (or even offering it as a part of its product line), they do not have the consumer’s best interests in mind.  This doesn’t mean that it could never be safe, but so far, there is no sufficient data to back that up.  Keep reading to discover why, and discover some insights from Scott Riefler, Chief Science Officer at Sorse Technology, and Harold Han, Chief Science Officer at Vertosa.

Why do brands use delta-8 THC?

From my conversations with Riefler and Han, it seemed that this question boiled down to two main answers:

It is cheaper than delta-9 THC.

“Delta-8 is extremely cheap compared to delta-9” said Reifler. He stated that delta-8 is a “temporary economic opportunity”, and that this is mainly why some companies are attracted to it. Because delta-8 comes from converted CBD, and CBD distillate is extremely cheap when compared to delta-9 THC mother liquor, this has created an opportunity for companies to create a similar high while reducing their input costs.

Operators saw it as a workaround to the illegality of delta-9 THC.

It was not until around 2020 when the first hemp-derived THC products emerged. Even as this market opportunity was discovered, because delta-9 THC is what is classified as a Schedule I drug, they decided that making a few alterations to the conversion process and using a compound that was similar —but not the same — might help them fly under the radar.  “People were scared of delta-9, so they used delta-8 instead to get around regulation,” said Han.

How is delta-8 THC made?

Riefler explained that because delta-8 is found in such minuscule quantities in hemp or cannabis, that it is essentially impossible for any delta-8 brands on the market to have derived their delta-8 from a natural process. So in order to derive delta-8 THC, you have to heat up CBD distillate to a high temperature to chemically convert it. “If you stop the reaction at a certain point, you can get a lot of delta-8 THC” said Riefler. 

Here is a breakdown of the process from the Chemical and Engineering News, from Chief Scientist of Elevation Distro, Michael Coffin: “The conversion of CBD to delta-8-THC involves refluxing CBD in an organic solvent, such as toluene or heptane, with p-toluenesulfonic acid or another acid that serves as a catalyst. The reaction is typically run for 60–90 min. “You basically close the ring on the CBD molecule,” Coffin says.”

What are the safety concerns for delta-8 THC?

Production Process

During the CBD conversion process, catalysts like aluminum and other heavy metals are used that are “not approved for food use” says Riefler. Hemp plants are also high in metals because it naturally absorbs them through the soil. Some of these operators use industrial hemp for their conversions, which does not need to be tested for heavy metals, and yet again introduces an opportunity for end consumers to be exposed to heavy metals. 

Han had a similar stance, saying “the chemical conversion is where the concern is, this is not the pharma space in terms of quality, people aren’t necessarily following purity levels or standard operating procedures.” He also put it in comparison to delta-9 THC, saying “there are ways to make D9 naturally, but you have to use chemical conversion to make D8, no one knows the safety around this.”

The Chemical & Engineering News article I referenced earlier takes a similar stance, with Michael Coffin saying “I’m less concerned with traditional THC isomers than I am of the ubiquitous unknowns. Delta-8, delta-9, and even delta-10 don’t seem to have any ill effects on people that we know of at this point,” he says. But a lot of people are doing a poor job of cleaning up their reaction products, which results in quite a soup of by-products and other unwanted compounds.”

Lack of Data

I asked Riefler what he would say to someone if they were adamant about using delta-8 over delta-9 THC. “I usually raise the safety testing question… with minor cannabinoids, that are now being separated and isolated to make a high concentration, what safety data do you have to make sure you are not poisoning someone?” He explained that to date, there is no literature with extensive toxicity tests that show delta-8 is safe and not poisonous for humans. For comparison, there is a plethora of data on human consumption of delta-9 THC, and people have been smoking and ingesting the compound for decades without any problem.

Han agreed with this as well, and said “we don’t have historical consumption data.” Even with CBN and CBG, which are very popular in both gummies and drinks, there is no historical data to prove that these compounds are safe for human consumption.  “With food ingredients, you never want to just move forward with producing and putting it in food until you know it is safe,” said Han. He added, “CBN has been used in sleep gummies for years, no one has died or been hurt, but that does not necessarily prove its safety.”

I also asked them despite this lack of data, whether delta-8 was still considered a real cannabinoid, or if it was just a synthetic man-made compound.

“It’s a real thing, it’s a valid cannabinoid, but the primary concern here is safety of consumers over health of the business” said Riefler. He added, “a lot of minor cannabinoids can have very bad side effects.”

Han said “it ‘should be’ safe, but we don’t have data to back it up.” He also followed a point that Riefler had said before, which is that humans have not consumed concentrated delta-8 THC until very recent history.

The FDA’s Stance

The FDA, like many other government organizations, has done its best to avoid touching anything related to hemp or cannabis. However, they have published a few reports on some cannabis-derived compounds, and to no one’s surprise, they are not too excited about delta-8 THC.

Here is an image from a study published by the University of South Carolina, comparing delta-8, delta-9, delta-10, and CBD in terms of effect and where they stand in terms of FDA regulation:

As you can see, while delta-9 THC and CBD have not been approved for recreational use, they have been approved for specific medical treatments, which shows promise for their regulatory future. However, delta-8 and delta-10 THC have not been approved for any uses.

Here is the cover image for the FDA’s article on delta-8 THC:

The FDA’s article contains many of the same points I included in this article, but one of the points that included adverse event reports was particularly concerning:

So if several scientists have raised concerns about the safety and toxicity of delta-8 THC, why do producers continue to manufacture products with this compound?

While it used to be hard to find economical hemp-derived delta-9 mother liquor, that is not the case anymore, so there isn’t even a business reason to be using this compound anymore.

My suggestion: question any products or brands that use delta-8 THC until there is more clarification on safety.