Hemp’s designer drug: Why delta-8 is flying off shelves

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A person opens a bottle of delta-8 THC oil. Photo by Elsa Olofsson at CBD Oracle (CC BY 2.0).

Delta-8 is stirring up the cannabis industry, and some people don’t exactly consider it weed or CBD. Nonetheless, you can still smoke, vape, and eat it. 

It's flying off the shelves in many places outside of cannabis dispensaries, like gas stations and even in states where marijuana isn't legal recreationally or medically. So what exactly is it, and why is there so much controversy around it? KCRW finds out from Leafly Senior Editor David Downs.

KCRW: What is delta-8?

David Downs: “Delta-8 is a milder form of cannabis’ main active ingredient, which is delta-9 THC. You can think of it as like a designer drug they found in hemp or as something that's really popular in prohibition states among people who want to use marijuana. So you can think of it as like Texas  THC.

Delta-8 THC causes less mood elevation and hunger and sleepiness than the full delta-9 THC. It's found in trace amounts in cannabis as well as hemp crops — that is cannabis that has no THC. And it's just one atomic bond different than delta-9 THC, with about a 30% less binding affinity at the CB1 receptor in your brain.” 

How does it make you feel?

“People call it like a marijuana light or sort of starters’ marijuana. There are dozens of cannabinoids — those are the psychoactive molecules in cannabis. As well as terpene — those are the aromatic molecules cannabinoids combine with to give cannabis its effect. 

It’s derived from hemp, which is federally legal. Under the hemp law, hemp must contain less than .03% THC, as in delta-9 THC. So what happens is there's these trace amounts of delta-8 THC, these rare cannabinoids that are being extracted out by hemp producers and put into oils that are made into gummies that are sold through the mail, through most of these prohibition states these days.”

What makes it so popular?

“Bottom line is people want to experience the effects of cannabis. They want to get high and they're in a prohibition state. Something like 61% of Americans support legalization, 90% of Americans support medical [use]. But there's only about 17 legalization states, aside from the CBD states or the medical marijuana states. And so everybody in America wants the same access that Californians have, but they can't get legal license supplies of it.

… The 2018 Farm Bill … legalized hemp, created a loophole and a gray area for this rare cannabinoid delta-8 THC. And the legality has yet to be settled. And during this interim, everybody who wants access to THC and marijuana can turn to delta-8, in a legal gray area until the USDA and the FDA, the DEA and other states start affirmatively saying whether or not delta-8 is legal.”

Is some of the controversy around it basically another form of anti-marijuana fear?

“America has what we call ‘euphorianoia’ … a paranoia or fear of mood elevation of a variety of types, and delta-8  falls into that category. But if you need pain relief or you need help with hunger or sleep, delta-8 might do the trick for you without getting you high. 

I first saw it in medical culture here in San Francisco, where there's a woman who had cancer pain in her face and she didn't want that euphoria and the feeling of high associated with THC. Delta-8 offers some of the therapeutic benefits of cannabis without some of the perceived side effects of cannabis. And that's making it extremely appetizing to people.”

Are there states trying to ban it?

“What we saw recently was in Washington. The Liquor and Cannabis Board said, ‘Look, you can't sell delta-8 gummies that you got from Georgia in your licensed cannabis shops. The only delta-8 products that could be sold in a licensed cannabis store in Washington must be grown on a licensed cannabis farm and extracted.’ So we're seeing state level legalization regimes try to protect the purity and sanctity of their supply chains from basically delta-8 hustlers all across the country who would love to get into licensed stores.”



Larry Perel


Tara Atrian