In an unregulated market, unknown bi-products have raised concerns over cannabinoids synthesized from CBD.

The rise of cannabidiol (CBD) derived from hemp, has paved the way for other cannabinoids to enter the federally legal market. One of the most popular cannabis compounds, delta-8 THC, has taken the spotlight as an alternative way to get “high” without breaking the law. Like CBD products, delta 8 takes the form of vapes, gummies, topicals, and many more, and are found as close as your nearest gas station or convenience store.

Unlike CBD, delta 8 produces psychoactive effects reminiscent to delta 9 extracted from marijuana, a Schedule I controlled substance under federal law. Delta 8 however, has a milder experience than delta 9. The two cannabinoids are also closely related in chemical structure, only differentiating by the location of one double bond.

From a surplus of CBD produced from an overambitious hemp industry. With CBD prices declining, companies had to quickly develop ways of making up for lost profits. In doing so, delta 8 THC and several other cannabinoids were created from CBD. Since the 2018 Farm Bill, all cannabinoids derived from hemp are federally legal as long as it contains less than 0.3% delta-9 THC. People who are now looking to relieve stress and anxiety in states where marijuana is illegal are able to find relief in delta 8.

The increase in popularity for delta 8 products leave chemists worried, especially in an unregulated market that does not require lab tests. Many hemp companies are now going as far as selling cannabinoids that don’t even exist in cannabis plants, and without certificates of analysis (COA), you really don’t know if what you are taking matches up with the label.

In the absence of the federal government, several states are cracking down on delta 8 products in order to regulate the psychoactive cannabinoid. Chemists in states that both prohibit and allow delta 8 consumption raise concerns over the fact that many of these hemp brands do not test their products, or contain labels for tests that do not accurately represent the cannabinoids in their products.

Safety Concerns Skyrocket

“My concern is that we have no idea what these products are,” says Christopher Hudalla, president and chief scientific officer of ProVerde Laboratories, an analytical testing firm with facilities in Massachusetts and Maine. “Consumers are being used as guinea pigs. To me, that’s horrific,” he says.

ProVerde has tested thousands of delta 8 products, none of which measure up to what they are labeled as. “So far, I have not seen one that I would consider a legitimate delta-8-THC product,” Hudalla says. “There’s some delta-8 in there, but there’s very frequently up to 30 [chromatographic] peaks that I can’t identify.” Many delta 8 products also contain delta 9 and delta 10 THC.

“I’m less concerned with traditional THC isomers than I am of the ubiquitous unknowns,” says Michael Coffin, chief scientist at Elevation Distro, a California-based cannabis manufacturing and distribution firm. “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.

Through a chemical reaction, CBD is converted into other cannabinoids like delta 8. “These are pretty aggressive synthetic conditions that use strong acids,” Hudalla says. “They might be using strong bases to neutralize. They can use metal catalysts. I hear different people doing it different ways.”

It is possible to separate delta-8-THC from unwanted reaction leftovers or by-products, but “most people are not actually taking the time to distill it or use chromatography” to do so, says Kyle Boyar, a staff research associate at the University of California San Diego’s Center for Medicinal Cannabis Research.

One common byproduct in delta 8 is olivetol, a precursor to THC as well as a THC inhibitor. One reason why delta 8 may be perceived as being milder than delta 9 may be a result of the presence of olivetol.

“A lot of irresponsible production is going on in the sense that most of these people are getting their information from online forums, and many of them aren’t necessarily trained chemists,” Boyar says.

In addition to the potential leftover heavy metals used to convert CBD to delta 8, other byproducts may also be found in the mix. Other chemicals used as solvents that require well ventilated environments may also be present, making it more important than ever to establish proper standards to legitimize the market.

The Case for Regulation

Legislators are unable to create laws fast enough to regulate the rapidly growing hemp industry. With more than a dozen states banning delta 8, with many more to follow, the need for federal regulation is meeting its peak. That being said, the need to regulate the hemp-derived cannabioid market is not exclusive to the United States.

Across Europe, CBD is also being converted into delta 8 and other cannabinoids. The European market also faces the same issues of contamination and impurities in their products, which also calls out the need for government intervention.

“This problem will not go away,” says Jeffrey Raber, cofounder and CEO of the Werc Shop, a California-based cannabis contract manufacturing and testing firm. “It might actually morph and change into bigger problems” if regulators don’t get a handle on it, he says.

Cannabis research stalled by federal action

As long as the federal government remains absent in any reformation, no clinical research can be put in place to further legitimize the plant for medical benefits. No regulation also allows for an industry without any form of standardization. Testing companies are overwhelmed by the amount of different chemicals they have to test for. With so many different extraction methods, as well as newly developing ones, third party laboratories are constantly having to update their analytics to better distinguish the differences in all of the solvents and agents used.

Like its production, regulating delta 8 is also a delicate procedure. If delta 8 is regulated the same way as delta 9, the industry will adapt to the prohibition and move to another cannabinoid. The language of future laws need to be broad and all encompassing. If laws are written that are too specific such as outright banning a specific cannabinoid like delta 9 THC, you will face the current situation with the 2018 Farm Bill, in which the cannabis industry can shift to a new cannabinoid like delta 8 in order to adapt to legislation. If delta 8 were to be banned, the industry will once again shift to another cannabinoid, one which may be more intoxicating, and potentially harmful to the body.

One cannabinoid called THC-O acetate, is an ester of THC that is not found naturally in cannabis plants, and is reported to be incredibly psychoactive. It is completely synthetic, and is an acetylated form of THC in the same way heroin is an acetylated form of morphine. These characteristics raise concerns over chemists who are worried that legislation may take regulation into the wrong direction. Until there is more research behind THCO, taking this nonnative cannabinoid should be done with caution.

The Future of Delta 8

Fans of delta 8 may continue to be mislead by hemp companies without proper regulation. Hudulla warns that “like making methamphetamine from cold medicine, just because the starting materials are legal does not make the resulting product legal (or safe).”

“I believe that delta-8 has a legitimate place in therapeutics and potentially adult use,” Hudalla adds. “But I just don’t see anybody doing it appropriately. It’s all bathtub gin.”

“Many participants in the hemp industry see delta-8-THC as the salvation, providing a financial bridge until the [US Food and Drug Administration] approves CBD as a dietary ingredient,” Hudalla says. “But I do not believe that it should be at the expense of unsuspecting consumers, who are being misled about what products they are being sold, to bail out the producers and investors who gambled on the CBD market,” he says.

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