What exactly is Delta-8 THC? Delta-8 THC is basically the result of a clever chemist taking a substance found in hemp — which is legal under the 2018 Farm Bill and does not produce a high — and finding a way to tweak the chemical bonds to create a closer cousin of marijuana while staying within the bounds of what the bill considers legal.
Confused? Yeah, it’s confusing. Here’s a little primer on plant biology that may clear it up: Hemp and marijuana are closely related plants in the cannabis family. They each contain more than 100 cannabinoids, chemicals that have various effects on the brain and body. The two most well-known cannabinoids are Delta-9 THC, which has a psychoactive effect, making you feel high (it’s what makes weed weed), and CBD, which does not make you high but is often used to relieve anxiety and pain. Under legal guidelines, cannabis plants that have more than 0.3% concentration of THC are known as marijuana; plants with less than that are known as hemp.
Now, Delta-8 THC is a minor cannabinoid that is very similar chemically to both CBD and Delta-9 THC, but only occurs naturally in teeny, tiny amounts in the hemp plant, so the real growth is done in a lab. “Products that are made with Delta-8 THC have to be chemically manufactured,” explains Ross. “They take the hemp that has CBD in it and they put a chemical like acetic acid — or something much stronger and possibly even toxic — on it to turn the CBD into Delta-8 THC.” In this process, some Delta-9 THC is also created, she says, so the manufacturer then has to chemically strip out the Delta-9, which is illegal to sell at concentrations above that magical mark of 0.3%. (In a small study by the United States Cannabis Council (USCC), 15 out of 16 Delta-8 THC samples purchased across the country contained Delta-9 THC at much higher concentrations, but that’s another issue.)
Once all this is done, what’s left is Delta-8, which is very similar to Delta-9 THC, with just one chemical bond in a different spot. According to a report by the USCC, Delta-8 has “a lower affinity” to the CB1 cannabinoid receptors in the brain, so it is less potent for getting you high, though the USCC report says it still may have up to 75% of the psychotropic potency of Delta-9.
But here’s the rub: The Delta-8 THC that’s being sold in stores across the country isn’t a natural product like CBD (or, for that matter, marijuana), says Ross, who describes it as a synthetic, which has the potential to contain toxins.
Once Delta-8 is created, it can be ingested in a number of ways, similar to CBD and marijuana: as a smokable hemp flower sprayed with a Delta-8 extract, in tablets that dissolve under your tongue, in vape cartridges, and in edibles such as gummies and treats. There are even cafes that sell drinks and pastries infused with Delta-8 THC.