UPDATE: “Understanding Legal Status”
Editor’s Note: Welcome to the first installment in the new series of educational articles from technical writer Curt Robbins at Higher Learning LV and MJNews Network. This collection is intended for cannabis and hemp industry professionals who wish to gain a better understanding of the nuanced biochemistry of this special—and newly legal—herb.
For the next two weeks, Curt teaches readers about the hot new phytomolecule delta-8 THC that is causing such a stir among consumers, entrepreneurs, and medical professionals.
CURT’S CANNABIS CORNER
What is Delta-8 THC?
For years, the producers, processors, distributors, marketers, regulators, and consumers of cannabis have focused primarily on only two molecules produced by the plant: Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD). Both are sold by thousands of companies in the United States, United Kingdom, and Canada.
As a wave of medical and adult use marijuana legalization reaches beyond North America to the far corners of the globe, companies are beginning to promote and exploit additional wellness molecules produced by cannabis and hemp. Creative entrepreneurs and product formulators are seeing the advantages, both financially and legally, of leveraging molecular options beyond CBD and THC.
The Big Picture
The cannabis/hemp plant species produces three primary families of wellness molecules that, together, number in the hundreds. There are approximately 146 cannabinoids, 20 flavonoids, and 200 terpenes—the majority of which have demonstrated significant medicinal efficacy, as revealed by thousands of peer-reviewed research studies since the late 18th century.
Before delving into the details of delta-8 THC, it is important to properly frame the topic.
Understanding Molecular Analogs
Most cannabis consumers are ignorant of the fact that the chemical compounds produced by cannabis are members of small groups called analogs (sometimes cited as isomers in research literature). In fact, the CBD family features seven distinct analogs, as does the cannabinoid cannabigerol (CBG).
THC is no exception. The analog with which most consumers are familiar is the infamous delta-9 variant (technically called the neutral analog), which produces sometimes significant psychoactivity. There’s also the acidic precursor THCA, which conveys no psychoactivity but significant wellness benefits and is popular as a juiced edible.
Yet another THC analog is the varin version, THCV, which conveys greater psychoactivity than delta-9, but only at more potent doses. An Italian research study published in December 2019 discovered additional THC and CBD analogs, THCP and CBDP, respectively (the researchers dubbed them the phorols). Delta-8 THC is yet another member of this collection of molecular analogs.
While molecular analogs sometimes share many of the same effects when consumed by humans (such as decreased systemic inflammation or an alleviation of depression or pain), such homogeneity cannot be assumed. For example, while delta-8 and delta-9 THC both stimulate appetite, THCV decreases it! Another frequently confusing feature of cannabinoids is a characteristic called the biphasic response curve. This mechanism involves a molecule producing one effect at a low dose and a different—and sometimes polar opposite—effect at a stronger dose.
A good example of the mechanism of biphasic response curves is delta-9 THC. At low doses, this molecule is known for helping consumers manage stress and decrease anxiety (“Netflix and chill, dude”). At more potent doses, however, the same molecule can cause increases in anxiety and paranoia and even result in panic attacks.
In the end, the differences between cannabinoid analogs are good because they provide additional options to patients and lifestyle consumers. Crohn’s disease and cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy experience sometimes extreme nausea and lack of appetite, which can lead to malnutrition and worsen their health. Wellness molecules that function as effective appetite stimulants are of obvious value to such consumer populations.
Understanding Hemp vs. Cannabis
To properly understand the characteristics of delta-8 THC relative to the myriad molecules produced by the cannabis plant, one must first gain insight into the legal and technical differences between hemp and cannabis. Hemp is considered any sample of the plant that tests below 0.3 percent (one-third of one percent) delta-9 THC in weight by volume (research has indicated that psychotropic effects do not manifest in most adult consumers until samples feature at least one percent delta-9 THC).
Hemp and cannabis have been illegal in the United States since August 1937, when the Marihuana Tax Act was passed by Congress. In December 2018, Congress reversed course after 81 years of prohibition by enacting the Farm Bill, which legalized samples of the plant containing below the 0.3 percent delta-9 THC standard employed in North America. Europe features a stricter 0.2 percent delta-9 THC limit, although this may change to 0.3 percent, in alignment with global market leaders such as the U.S. and Canada, in the near future.
Delta-9 THC is currently considered a Schedule I drug which, by definition, implies that it provides zero medicinal benefit while displaying a strong propensity for abuse. Delta-8 THC, however, is legally categorized as a component of hemp, meaning that it falls under different regulatory oversight and can be sold in dozens of U.S. states. Legally, delta-8 and delta-9 THC are in different universes. From a regulatory perspective, delta-8 THC is managed more similarly to CBD.
This important legal distinction means that companies can formulate and market products containing delta-8 THC and sell them in most states. Delta-9 THC products, on the contrary, can be produced and sold in only 15 U.S. states, with no interstate commerce or merchant banking permitted under the current scheme of federal prohibition.
Understanding Legal Status
Hemp and cannabis have been illegal in the United States since August 1937, when the Marihuana Tax Act was passed by Congress. In December 2018, Congress reversed course after 81 years of prohibition by enacting the Farm Bill, which legalized samples of the plant containing below the 0.3 percent THC standard employed in North America, which it defines as “hemp.” Europe features a stricter 0.2 percent THC limit, although this may change to 0.3 percent, in alignment with global market leaders such as the U.S. and Canada, in the near future.
Both delta-9 and delta-8 THC are currently considered Schedule I drugs by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency. This means that all regulatory oversight and legal restrictions placed on delta-9 THC also apply to delta-8. Some of the companies producing delta-8 products are doing so legally under the laws of their home state, but, just as with delta-9 products, in defiance of federal oversight.
It must be emphasized that such companies remain legal only if they restrict sales of their product to within the borders of their home state. Any interstate commerce activity falls under the strict purview of federal authorities, including the DEA, and Schedule I status.
Confusion regarding these relatively new laws surrounds many interpretations of the legal status of delta-8 THC and emerging products. Some parties believe that delta-8 derived from hemp (samples of the cannabis plant genome that feature <0.3 percent delta-9 THC) are a legal loophole that allow them to narrowly skirt any laws of prohibition at the state or federal level.
“You have a drug that essentially gets you high, but is fully legal. The whole thing is comical,” said Lukas Gilkey, CEO of Hometown Hero CBD in Austin, Texas, during an interview with the New York Times.
However, many legal authorities paint a different picture. “Dealing in any way with delta-8 THC is not without significant legal risk,” said Alex Buscher, a Colorado lawyer who specializes in cannabis law, during an interview for the New York Times article cited above.
Some companies have invested in production and multi-state marketing of delta-8 products. Unfortunately, they are doing so under the false belief that their formulations are categorized as hemp under the Farm Bill and, thus, legal.
Unfortunately, this is not the case. Delta-8 and delta-9 THC fall under the identical categorization and carry the same enforcement mechanisms and penalties.
Understanding Delta-8 THC
Regardless of the legal status of delta-8 THC, let’s compare and contrast the medicinal efficacy of both compounds. Despite its reputation for helping consumers unwind from a stressful day, delta-9 THC has a nasty reputation for causing the opposite when consumed in strong doses: Elevated anxiety, paranoia, and sometimes panic attacks. Disorientation, confusion, and other forms of distress resulting from too much delta-9 have been documented by hospital emergency rooms and psychologists for decades.
Delta-8 THC has been reported, through both formal research and anecdotal testimony, to deliver roughly two-thirds of the psychoactivity of the delta-9 isomer, but without the paranoia. This provides an option for those who avoid delta-9 THC or cannabis overall due to a previous negative experience with the herb.
That said, it should be noted that the potential for consumers, especially novices, to experience increased anxiety or paranoia when consuming any psychotropic substance, especially in potent doses, always exists. Doctors and wellness professionals should experiment over time and “start low and go slow” with the dosing of delta-8. Many consumers have reported positive experiences when consuming delta-8 THC, especially in comparison to delta-9.
One distinct difference between these two analogs is their relative volumes in plant samples. Most modern cultivars and chemovars (“strains”) of cannabis have been bred to increase delta-9 THC levels (which typically range from 10 to 30 percent), not CBD or delta-8. As such, delta-8 THC is found in small quantities in natural plant samples (typically well under one percent, similar to CBG). Delta-8 is sometimes extracted and concentrated by complex processing equipment requiring specially trained technicians. More often, however, it is synthesized from molecules that feature similar molecular structures, such as CBD and delta-9 THC.
Some doctors, including Dr. Benjamin Caplan (a clinical practitioner in Boston who recommends legal cannabis to his patients), are finding superior results with their patients when they mix the correct doses of delta-8 and delta-9. Some wellness professionals are employing such a formulation instead of the more traditional delta-9 and CBD mix.
“While the combination of delta-8 and delta-9 often yields a less euphoric experience, it can be a very pleasant alternative to blends of delta-9 THC and CBD,” Caplan told me during an exclusive interview.
In addition to appetite stimulation, delta-8 THC delivers anxiety reduction, can help treat pain, has shown antioxidant efficacy, and is a powerful tool in the treatment of nausea. Caplan described delta-8 THC as a “fan favorite” among his patients.
Delta-9 Tolerance Break Tool?
Some companies and caregivers have begun exploring the use of delta-8 THC as a tool to help daily users, especially heavy cannabis consumers, to lower their tolerance to delta-9 THC. Even slight improvements in the relative potency of delta-9 based on reduced tolerance can equal significant monetary savings for such large volume consumers.
“It’s not uncommon for those who use delta-9 THC to find that efficacy wanes after a long period of consistent use,” said Dena Putnam, President and co-founder of Leafwize Naturals in Orange County, California. Leafwize Naturals sells a variety of vape cart products featuring the dominant ingredient of delta-8 THC.
Putnam explained how the delta-8 isomer of THC “may offer a way to circumvent the body’s tolerance of delta-9 while delivering similar benefits…all while taking a break from delta-9 in an effort to bring back the full effectiveness” she explained during an exclusive interview.
Putnam said that delta-9 THC tolerance breaks “can be scary for those who depend on it for daily pain relief and mood management,” but explained that it is “sometimes necessary to reset the effectiveness of the medicine.” She explained how “delta-8 may offer a way to take a delta-9 break while providing a level of medicinal relief that is similar to delta-9.”
When queried about the success of this approach, Putnam explained how she and her staff noted two positive outcomes from their experiment: Delta-8 efficacy that mirrored that of delta-9 and the overall goal of achieving a lowered tolerance for delta-9 THC. Both target outcomes were achieved, somewhat of a unicorn in the world of science-based health and wellness.
“We found that, after a period of switching from delta-9 THC to delta-8, that delta-8 helped in a manner similar to delta-9,” said Putnam. “More important, when the user resumed consumption of delta-9, the effects were greater, as if they had taken a conventional tolerance break,” she added.
It’s a Wrap
Delta-8 THC, only one of several THC analogs that includes THCA, THCV, and THCP, offers a number of advantages over its sibling delta-9. From the perspective of medicinal efficacy, delta-8 provides 60-70 percent of the psychotropic (psychoactive) effects of delta-9 THC while, typically, delivering little or none of the paranoia and anxiety that may result from delta-9.
Medical practitioners and business entrepreneurs are beginning to recognize the advantages of a world in which phytocannabinoids beyond CBD and delta-9 THC are readily available in thousands of products from hundreds of companies. If businesses like Southern California’s Leafwize Naturals have anything to say about it, that world will be here sooner rather than later.