Delta-9 Gray Area
Delta-8 THC gray area: Testing labs should lead on safety
Published July 20, 2021 | By Susan Audino
(This column first appeared in the MJBizScience newsletter. Sign up for the monthly newsletter here.) In an effort to boost a CBD-slumped economy, hemp producers are synthesizing delta-8 THC. They market their products to consumers who want the high typically associated with delta-9 THC in states or regions where delta-9 THC is illegal. It seems to satisfy consumers while beating federal cannabis prohibition. But chemists are alarmed, citing the lack of empirical research on delta-8 psychoactive properties, inherent residual contaminants after synthesizing and the probability that trace amounts of delta-9 THC remain. They are worried about consumer safety and the proliferation of incorrect (or at least inaccurate) information to consumers. Delta-8 product manufacturers are operating in a fundamentally gray area, warn chemists, as noted in a recent piece in Chemical & Engineering News. Many manufacturers of delta-8 products are not chemists. They are bright entrepreneurs who might not fully understand synthesis mechanisms, leaving behind products from side reactions that could be harmful. We are all familiar with the 2018 Farm Bill, which defined hemp as “all derivatives, extracts, cannabinoids, isomers, acids, salts, and salts of isomers, whether growing or not, with a delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol concentration of not more than 0.3%.” The passage implies delta-8 THC is a legal product. However, delta-8 THC is largely synthesized and often contains trace amounts of delta- 9 THC. This caveat prompted the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration to declare that “all synthetically derived tetrahydrocannabinols remain Schedule 1 substances,” thus making delta-8 THC products federally prohibited. Several states have since sided with the DEA position and do not allow these products. Chemists commonly cite a need for third-party testing to ensure consumers (and presumably regulatory bodies) are aware of delta-8 product ingredients. Unfortunately, testing in mainstream cannabis products is neither straightforward nor simple. Products that are manufactured under less-than-ideal laboratory conditions, perhaps using unsophisticated chemical processes, provide infinite opportunities for problems. Adding products with unknown formulations and processing to the cannabis-testing manifest creates a nearly impossible task for laboratories already struggling to meet need with only scant standard test methods at their disposal. The lack of full disclosure of manufacturing processes and the lack of empirical evidence to support anecdotal claims of the products’ physiological and psychological effects creates a difficult position for regulatory bodies. This muddle should not be a surprise. Operating under different claims, delta-10 THC was the hottest product on the market only a short time ago. With more than 600 constituents in its native form, we’ll keep discovering new compounds in cannabis. Just as interesting is synthesizing desired compounds from the natural product, traditionally the purview of synthetic chemistry. As scientists, we should work with regulatory bodies to anticipate the future and develop a rational, science-based approach to ensure consumer safety. It is abundantly clear that working in reaction mode is unsuccessful.