Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from contributing editor Nick Johnson, a historian and editor based in Fort Collins, Colorado. His book Grass Roots: A History of Cannabis in the American West (2017) is a history of cannabis agriculture that explores the environmental and social dynamics of the nation’s most controversial crop. He also blogs (and occasionally podcasts!) about all things cannabis on his website, Hempirical Evidence.
Traditionally, cannabis has been understood as a plant of dualities and contradictions. It comes in varieties that produce either fiber or drugs, for example. It grows tall and straight or short and bushy, with broader leaves or narrower ones. At various points in its history, it has been held up as a medicine and demonized as a menace. For centuries, cannabis has had its fun confounding humanity with its ambivalent identity.
Lately, however, modern technology and new laws are helping to blur the plant’s historic binaries and show us that—for all we have learned about cannabis over the millennia—we may not know as much as we think we do. Hemp, for instance, was rarely considered a medicinal plant in Western or American cultures until the advent of the CBD craze in the 2010s. Cannabidiol (CBD), a substance that “healed without the high,” broke the cannabis plant’s industrial-medicinal binary—turns out hemp could be both, after all. But we still knew one thing for certain, and this fact provided one of the most convincing arguments for the 2018 re-legalization of hemp in the US: hemp plants cannot get you high.
Delta New Hand
Well, we were pretty sure of it, anyway. Then the CBD boom went bust, and American farmers were left with fields full of CBD-rich hemp plants they could not sell. As it often does, need begot innovation. Starting in 2019, some CBD producers leveraged modern extraction technology to pull a psychotropic rabbit out of the hemp hat. Delta-8 Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) is a molecular cousin of Delta-9 THC, the main psychoactive compound in traditional marijuana. Delta-8 THC produces essentially the same effects as Delta-9 THC, except far more subdued—and, through chemical reactions, it can be created from hemp-derived CBD.