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.
Along with other cannabinoids, Delta-8 was first isolated in the 1970s following the identification of Delta-9 THC by Israeli scientist Raphael Mechoulam in 1964. But there was little use for Delta-8 in the decades that followed, as it was all about growing marijuana with as much Delta-9 THC as possible. Nobody was looking for “subdued” effects—they wanted that gas.
The popularity of CBD, however, changed all that. Consumers aren’t necessarily looking for the strongest weed anymore. Many, in fact, are turned off by the super-potent stuff, finding it unpleasant to deal with bouts of cannabis-induced anxiety, paranoia, or foggy-headedness. CBD partially met that demand, but doesn’t come with some of the more pleasurable psychotropic effects of THC.
In comes Delta-8, which provides the euphoric and sense-enhancing effects of Delta-9 with a greatly reduced risk for some of the other side-effects. Unsurprisingly, Delta-8 sales are rocketing.
Again, we find ourselves having to place asterisks next to a well-worn fact about cannabis: “Hemp cannot get you high”* (*—Unless you extract some CBD and convert it into Delta-8). Human ingenuity has once again combined with the naturally complex cannabis plant to produce something of great demand, and of course, great concern.
Challenge of Regulation
To the surprise of no one, governments are incredibly confused about how to deal with Delta-8. It currently exists in a regulatory loophole in the United States: legal via the 2018 Farm Bill, but with effects that are identical to Delta-9 THC, which is a super-duper illegal drug under the Controlled Substances Act. The US Drug Enforcement Agency is aware of Delta-8 but is generally unsure of how to enforce it. The compound isn’t explicitly listed under the Controlled Substances Act, from which hemp products are exempt.
Meanwhile, some states, including weed-friendly states like Colorado and Alaska, immediately banned the substance. This was likely done out of a combination of concern about Delta-8 possibly undermining the existing marijuana industry in those states and the fear that unregulated THC might invite federal intervention.
Meanwhile, major players in the cannabis industry worry about the effects of unregulated Delta-8 products, which are showing up in gas stations, liquor stores, and other places that are not subject to state-level cannabis regulations. Pesticides, metals, and other toxins may be present in these products, which also may not even contain effective levels of actual Delta-8. Moreover, the fact that Delta-8 is less potent may have a kind of diet soda or “fun size” candy effect, where people overconsume due to the perception that the product is a lesser version of its full-strength self.
Different Product, Same Argument
As a cannabis historian, I view all of this with a mixture of hilarity, fascination, and concern. I am continuously amused by the ways in which cannabis continues to thwart humanity’s understanding of it, even as it leverages us to ensure its survival. But I am also in favor of safe, regulated access to its products, and so I do believe it is important to regulate the production and distribution of Delta-8. Based on their demonstrable usefulness and people’s inherent desire for them, there are likely going to be many other cannabinoid-based products in the future, and science needs to start getting ahead of them.
Ultimately, as with so many other threads in the realm of cannabis thought, I am forced to return to the same conclusion that I’ve offered many times, here and elsewhere: the federal government must remove all cannabis products from the Controlled Substances Act and do its best to craft sound, science-backed legislation that regulates one of the most popular consumer intoxicants in world history.