Experts Warn That Not All Cannabis Alternatives Are Safe

  • Delta-8 THC products are exploding in popularity and are widely available in the U.S.
  • As a synthetic alternative to cannabis, delta-8 THC is considered legal in all 50 states.
  • Often referred to as ‘cannabis lite’ or ‘diet weed,’ delta-8 can still produce a ‘high,’ despite being touted for its moderate effects.
  • Adverse reactions to delta-8 have been reported, with over 2,300 cases of accidental poisoning in adults and children.
  • The CDC and FDA have issued warnings about delta-8 products as many states seek to ban them.

Across the United States, delta-8 THC products are showing up at gas stations and corner stores and are widely available online, even in states where recreational cannabis is illegal.

Like other cannabis products, delta-8 products come in the form of gummies, tinctures, vape cartridges, and more. But unlike cannabidiol (CBD), a popular, legal alternative to cannabis, delta-8 products are designed to get you high.

In some surveys, users report that delta-8 products offer relaxation and pain relief with fewer side effects compared to regular cannabis, such as anxiety and difficulty focusing.

Still, delta-8 carries many of the same risks as regular cannabis. And the real concern with delta-8 products, according to experts, is that they’re unregulated. So there’s no guarantee they contain exactly what the product label says they do.

This means that people who consume low quality delta-8 products are at risk of accidental poisoning. Both the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) have released recent warnings about delta-8 products.

Delta-8 cannabis products contain delta-8-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), which is similar in structure to delta-9-THC, the main psychoactive compound in cannabis plants.

Both cannabinoids occur naturally in cannabis plants, but delta-8-THC is found in negligible quantities. So most delta-8-THC sold to consumers is chemically synthesized from CBD, another cannabinoid found in cannabis plants.

Because of their similar chemical structure, delta-8-THC and delta-9-THC bind to the same receptors in the brain, which results in the “high” feeling that occurs when you smoke cannabis flower or eat a delta-8 or delta-9 gummy.

However, research from May 2022 suggests that delta-8-THC binds less strongly to the cannabinoid CB1 receptor compared to delta-9-THC. This may explain the milder experiences reported by some delta-8 users, and why the synthetic compound became known by advocates as “diet weed.”

In one survey of delta-8-THC users, published January 2022 in the Journal of Cannabis Research, the majority of people reported experiencing relaxation, euphoria, and pain relief. However, some also reported having an altered sense of time, difficulty concentrating, or problems with short-term memory. Fewer people reported anxiety or paranoia.

“We found that people who are utilizing delta-8-THC feel fewer negative side effects, and they are using it in modalities that are safer, like vaping or edibles or using topically,” study author Jessica Kruger, PhD, a clinical assistant professor of community health and health behavior at University at Buffalo, said in a press release.

In the paper, Kruger and her colleague called for more research on the psychoactive effects of delta-8-THC, as well as the risks and benefits. “While delta-8-THC appears to have some really big, positive attributes, we need to know more, and we should be cautious with any product that’s hitting the market unregulated and untested,” Kruger said.

Delta-8-THC products are unregulated at the federal level. However, in May 2022, a California federal appeals court ruled that delta-8-THC is legal under the 2018 Farm Bill — which legalized CBD products containing less than 0.3% delta-9-THC.

Making things even murkier, several states have banned or are considering banning delta-8-THC products.

Because of the lack of consistent regulation, the quality of these products depends upon the company making them.

“When you have unregulated products being sold at gas stations, head shops, grocery stores — outside of a [cannabis] dispensary setting — the products tend to become dangerous because there’s no oversight on how they’re made, what the ingredients are, and if they’re sterile,” Shanna Babalonis, PhD, an assistant professor in the Department of Behavioral Science at the University of Kentucky, told Healthline.

According to Babalonis, some companies realized they can make more money from delta-8 products than CBD products, so they convert the CBD found in high-CBD cannabis plants into delta-8-THC.

This chemical process is published in the scientific literature, but it needs to be done carefully in order to produce high quality delta-8-THC.

“The problem is that the chemists aren’t always very good at what they’re doing, especially when they’re doing it in an unregulated way outside of the purview of the FDA or state oversight,” Babalonis said. “So what’s happening is there is sometimes also delta-9 in those products and there are byproducts of the chemical synthesis in those products — and some of that can be dangerous.”

In one study published in December 2021, scientists at the University of Rochester Medical Center found that of the 27 delta-8-THC products analyzed, none contained the amount of this compound listed on the label. In addition, all contained potentially harmful byproducts, including delta-9-THC and heavy metals such as lead and mercury.

In addition, Babalonis said inaccurate labeling of delta-8 products — such as the product containing more of this compound than the label says — can put consumers at risk, because they can accidentally consume more than they intended. Mislabeling is also a problem with many CBD products.

Because of the potential dangers of unregulated delta-8-THC products, the CDC issued a health advisory in September 2021, pointing to an increase in adverse events related to these products.

More recently, in May 2022, the FDA released its own warning about delta-8-THC.

“It is important for consumers to be aware that delta-8 THC products have not been evaluated or approved by the FDA for safe use in any context,” the agency said in its release. “They may be marketed in ways that put the public health at risk and should especially be kept out of reach of children and pets.”

The FDA has received over 100 reports of adverse reactions to delta-8-THC products, with people reporting side effects including:

  • hallucinations
  • vomiting
  • tremor
  • anxiety
  • dizziness
  • confusion
  • loss of consciousness

According to the FDA, national poison control centers received over 2,300 reports of delta-8-THC poisonings between January 2021 and February 2022.

More than 2 out of 3 cases required people to be checked at a healthcare facility, and in almost 1 in 10 cases, the person was admitted to a hospital’s critical care unit.

Just over half of these involved adults, while over 40% involved children and teenagers. In addition, of the unintentional exposures to delta-8-THC, the vast majority occurred among younger age groups.

Babalonis is particularly concerned about the risks to children from delta-8, because they may be attracted to edible products that look similar to candy or cereal.

“What’s especially risky is that [delta-8 products] often come in a really appealing jar or bag of gummy bears, with no child blocks or warnings,” Babalonis said.

“We know that when kids consume delta-8 in high quantities, it’s very serious for them. Kids may need to be intubated in the ICU when they overdose on this or any THC chemical.”

Delta-8 THC products are popular all over the U.S., even in states where recreational cannabis is illegal.

Despite its reputation for being milder, delta-8 can still get you high and may produce undesirable or even dangerous side effects, including accidental poisoning.

Children are especially at risk of poisoning from consuming delta-8 products due to their small body size and because the products often come in the form of gummy bears and peach rings, which can be very appealing to younger age groups.

If you’re wondering whether you should try delta-8 products, remember that they’re unregulated and often mislabeled. Consider the FDA and CDC warnings about synthetic cannabis alternatives like delta-8 to determine whether it’s worth the risk.

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