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Interest is building in Delta-8 THC, but its scientific study is hampered by inconsistent rules

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An employee at San Antonio CBD shop Mr. Farmacist removes Delta-8 gummies from a display case. - SANFORD NOWLIN
  • Sanford Nowlin
  • An employee at San Antonio CBD shop Mr. Farmacist removes Delta-8 gummies from a display case.
Paul discovered Delta-8 when he went to his regular CBD shop for a vape pen refill.

The store was out of the 35-year-old San Antonio sales rep’s regular order, so after using his smartphone to look up the Delta-8 offered to him by the shop as an alternative, he decided to give it a try.

Two pulls on the pre-loaded vape pen did the trick, and the THC derived from hemp became part of his regular regimen.

CBD provided Paul some relief from pain stemming from injuries he suffered while a passenger in a ride-share car T-boned by a truck. But Delta-8 has proved even more effective — and more readily available — than the controlled substance of Delta-9 THC, found in marijuana.

Paul’s wife uses combinations of Delta-8, Delta-9 and Delta-10, another molecularly similar substance, to alleviate symptoms of her own chronic medical conditions. The mind-calming effects of the still-legal Delta-8, makes sleep come easier at night for both, he added.

Delta-8, which some call “legal weed,” is weaker that conventional cannabis. Even so, it’s so close to Delta-9 that both the safe aspects of its use and pitfalls are assumed to be similar. Leading researchers in the field, however, say they know too little about Delta-8 and other THC variations because they can’t legally study them the way they can the effects of marijuana.

“Delta-8 and Delta-9 are really similar from a chemical perspective. It is difficult to tell the difference even with a mass spectrometer,” said Daniele Piomelli, director of the Institute for the Study of Cannabis and professor of anatomy and neurobiology at the medical school of University of California, Irvine.

Researchers know that Delta-8, one of about 140 compounds similar to the THC, or tetrahydrocannabinol, found in cannabis, targets the same cannabinoid receptor in the brain that provides intoxication as a psychoactive compound and relief from nausea.

But most of what is known beyond that is anecdotal or guessed at based on studies of marijuana, Piomelli said.

“It’s not really a processed product,” said Brett Ginsburg, a professor of pharmacology and substance abuse at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio’s Long School of Medicine. “It’s just a natural product extracted from the hemp plant.”

Product of the moment?

Because it’s legal for now, Delta-8 could merely be a product of the moment, Ginsberg said. That is, until it’s regulated, and another takes its place.

“It’s a business and people seek out [THC-based products] for a reason,” Ginsberg said. “You’re always chasing the next product.”

Piomelli said he wants to do clinical studies comparing the effects of Delta-8 versus Delta-9, first on animals and then on humans. However, under a quirk of federal law, conducting that research would cause the loss of his license with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency to use legally acquire Delta-9 for study.

“The legal landscape is so weird that it makes it hard to study,” he said.

That means there are many unknowns and no clear science to decide on how to create reasonable regulations around Delta-8 or other THC forms. Building the same knowledge base for Delta-8 as for marijuana “would take 500 papers published, and that’s millions and millions of dollars in research,” Piomelli added.

Lower THC levels

What’s known anecdotally is that Delta-8 has similar properties to Delta-9, including improving sleep quality for some people. Additionally, the substance can help with nausea and has a mildly intoxicating effect.

THC from hemp is 0.3%, while marijuana THC used in clinical studies is 3%. Commercially grown cannabis for sale on the market in states where it is legal can be up to 20% THC, Piomelli said.

Although Delta-8 THC concentrations are considerably lower, using more means ramping up the intoxicating effects to those similar to Delta-9.

“Someone who seeks a high [from Delta-8] will get it,” Piomelli said. That could come from more pulls on a vape pen or ingesting more of the substance in the form of edibles.

Positives and negatives

Paul, who uses small amounts of Delta-8 as part of his sleep regimen, said he recently had a Delta-8 edible in the form of a treat made with chocolate-flavored cereal. He was surprised that the amount of THC in the homemade goodies was enough to keep him feeling high for two days.

If some of the positive attributes of Delta-9 are mirrored in the Delta-8 — help with post-traumatic stress, improved appetite for those undergoing cancer treatments and better sleep for those with chronic pain, for example — the same could be true of negative effects in some people.

Frequent, acute use of THC in adults has been shown to cause some people to have a loss of coordination, temporary loss of short-term memory and slower response times, Piomelli said. In teenagers, whose brains are still developing, acute use can increase risk of psychosis including schizophrenia, a condition most people don’t know they are predisposed to until its onset, he added.

Pregnant women also should err on the side of caution and not use Delta-9 or Delta-8 regularly, according to the researcher.

UT Health San Antonio’s Ginsburg said great care should be taken with knowing the amounts and THC strengths used in products to avoid unintended consequences. Edibles, unless labeled with the specific data, can be an unpleasant unknown. “Once you eat them, you’re stuck with them.”

“There is a problem of abuse liability with any kind of psychoactive substance,” Ginsburg said. “Vulnerable people shouldn’t assume [Delta-8] is an end around.”

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