Delta-8 has caused quite a stir in the world of cannabis, with federal and state governments trying to find ways to cope with this new entrant into the products field. As laws are being put in place to keep it out, a new question becomes, is delta-8 THC a recreational or medicinal product?
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What is delta-8 THC?
Before we get into specifics about it, and whether delta-8 should be considered recreational or medicinal, let’s go over what delta-8 THC is, for anyone who hasn’t been following along with the current controversy. Delta-8 THC is both an isomer and analogue of delta-9 THC, the standard THC of marijuana that people associate with getting high. Delta-9 doesn’t actually exist in large amounts in fresh cannabis flowers, rather its precursor THCA does. THCA decarboxylates when it comes into contact with heat, or over time, losing a carboxyl group (COOH) to form delta-9 THC.
The chemical transformation is this: C22H30O4 –> C₂₁H₃₀O₂. However, we already know about delta-9 THC, what we want to know about, is delta-8. Once the delta-9 THC comes into contact with oxygen, it loses electrons, a process called oxidation. This process transforms delta-9 into delta-8. The loss of electrons makes the compound more stable, meaning delta-8 has a longer shelf life than delta-9. The chemical structure is identical for both.
Delta-8 is an isomer of delta-9 because it actually has the same chemical structure, with a different configuration of atoms within. It’s an analogue of delta-9 because it is structurally and functionally (medically) nearly identical. For this reason, delta-8 and delta-9 THCs are often cited as being useful to treat the same ailments.
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Delta-8 THC was discovered at the same time as delta-9 THC. Roger Adams did a partial synthesis in 1941, followed by Raphael Mechoulam who synthesized the compound in 1965. It was used in a number of studies including one in 1974 that showed anti-cancer properties, and this 1995 one by Mechoulam, which showed its ability to stop nausea and vomiting in cancer patients. This was all swept under the rug.
Why do we care about this?
As stated, delta-8 was discovered way back when delta-9 was, so why are we starting to talk about it now? Because for a time, it appeared that delta-8 fit into a loophole that allowed its legal sale, which meant getting around the illegality of delta-9. This all happened because the 2018 US Farm Bill legalized the cultivation of industrial hemp, and the production of products made from it. As part of this – and the definition of hemp in general, stipulations were put in place as to how much THC a hemp plant could have and still be legal. In the US, it’s officially .3% in dry weight. The definition of ‘hemp’ is as follows:
“…the plant Cannabis Sativa L. and any part of that plant, including the seeds thereof and 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 percent on a dry weight basis.”
Since the definition of hemp specifically mentions delta-9, it was thought that delta-8 was not included. Since delta-8 can be sourced from any delta-9, even from low-THC hemp plants, it was thought that so long as the plants sourced from had below that .3% of delta-9, that delta-8 coming from it would be legal. The DEA put out its Interim Final Rule in 2020 to help smooth some Farm Bill wrinkles, but made no mention of delta-8. What it did say, was a reiteration that synthetics were never included in the definition of hemp.
Why does this matter? Delta-8 oxidizes from delta-9 at an extremely slow rate. So, though it does exist naturally in nature, it does so in such small amounts that its not useful. In order to have enough to use in products, human processing help is required, which means that it is being at least partially synthesized by humans. The Interim Final Rule didn’t specify if this would constitute ‘synthetic’. Neither did the subsequent USDA Final Rule in 2021.
Legally there was never a reason for further mention, as there was never actually a loophole. This is because an analogue of a Schedule I substance is also a Schedule I substance according to the 1986 Controlled Substances Analogue Act. Delta-9 THC is already a controlled substance through the 1980 Controlled Substances Act. Apart from this, its human processing likely constitutes it as synthetic, which means it was never covered by the Farm Bill. Regardless, the US government did do something.
What did end up happening, is that the US government finally added ‘delta-8 THC’ to the Controlled Substances list as another name for ‘tetrahydrocannabinols’. This came with a Schedule I listing under DEA criminal code number 7370. Which effectively illegalized it on a federal level. Funny enough, individual states are still doing their best to illegalize delta-8 separately, even though it is thoroughly federally illegal at this point. Technically, only a state that already has recreational cannabis would have to worry about a separate illegalization, unless the idea is to illegalize it preemptively. An example is Texas, which doesn’t have recreational cannabis, but which just floated a bill which criminalizes delta-8.
Difference between delta-8 and delta-9 THCs
As explained, the two compounds are isomers of each other, meaning they have the same chemical structure, but a different placement of atoms within the structure. The only structural difference is the placement of a double bond. In delta-9 THC it sits on the 9th carbon atom in the chain, and in delta-8 THC it sits on the 8th carbon atom. This minor difference doesn’t create a huge variance in what the compounds do, with delta-8 also being considered an analogue which means it not only has an identical chemical structure, but is nearly identical pharmacologically and medicinally as well.
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When it comes to things like anti-inflammatory properties, nausea and vomiting prevention, anxiety and sleep issues, anti-cancer benefits, and dealing with neurodegenerative diseases (among a host of other benefits), the two compounds have similar effects in medical testing. However, the placement of that double bond does a few things to make delta-8 separate from delta-9, some of which make the question of whether it is recreational or medicinal, that much more relevant.
- Delta-9 is known to help with anxiety, however, it is also known to produce anxiety and paranoia in some users. Delta-8 doesn’t seem to do this, meaning users don’t have to worry about having a bad experience in the same way. This is a major benefit for medicinal users who don’t want to add anxiety onto their list of problems.
- Delta-8 is associated with a more clear-headed high, and more energy for the user. Delta-9 is known to couch lock people at times, leaving them with no energy or motivation to move. Delta-8 doesn’t do this, also making it a preferable choice for medical patients who don’t want to lose their ability to get things done during treatment.
- Lastly, delta-8 is indeed psychoactive, but not as psychoactive as delta-9. This was established in the 1970’s during testing. It was found that delta-8 is 2:3 the potency of delta-9 THC, both when taken orally or intravenously. This is also beneficial for medical patients who are not looking to deal with a powerful psychoactive high during treatment.
Is delta-8 recreational or medicinal?
To be honest, there’s no real definition for delta-9 as far as recreational or medicinal. For some people its one, and for some it’s the other. Delta-8 is similar, some recreational smokers will appreciate the lack of anxiety, some medical users will appreciate the lesser high. Simply because delta-8 comes with less high, less anxiety, and less couch locking, it presents a lesser recreational strength, but a higher medicinal one.
Which brings up the question of why its being banned by different states. When Colorado banned it, the State’s health department made this statement: “Chemically modifying or converting any naturally occurring cannabinoids from industrial hemp is non-compliant with the statutory definition of ‘industrial hemp product.’” This seems to back up that delta-8 is viewed as synthetic. The agency went on to say:
“Insufficient evidence exists to determine whether or not any toxic or otherwise harmful substances are produced during these reactions and may remain in the regulated industrial hemp products ingested or applied/used by consumers… Therefore, these tetrahydrocannabinol isomers are not allowed in food, dietary supplements or cosmetics.”
This statement clearly makes it a health issue, with the government stating a fear that ‘toxic or otherwise harmful substances’ might be ingested by users. While this fear is valid, worthwhile, and good to have, it only really stipulates a need for regulating delta-8 processing, since the compound itself has never been identified as dangerous.
This can be put in perspective, though. No one has died from delta-8 THC, but plenty of people have died from opiate overdoses in the US. In fact, there have been approximately ½ million reported overdose deaths between 1999-2019, in an epidemic started by the same government that now wants to tell you it cares about processing techniques for a drug with no death count. And opiates haven’t been outlawed in Colorado, or anywhere else in the US.
The likelier answer to me, is that delta-8 THC is being blocked from recreational use and the general market, so that a pharmaceutical version can come out without competition. After all, if delta-9 has medical applications, so does delta-8. And delta-8’s are way better for the medical community.
Is delta-8 THC a recreational or medicinal drug? Well, it’s a little bit of both. It’s great for recreational users who want to feel good without going overboard, and its great for medical patients who don’t want to be out of their minds while getting treatment. It would be very sad if after all this, delta-8 got put back on a shelf to be forgotten. However, I think there’s a better chance that in the near future, delta-8 will be the next pharmaceutical darling.
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Disclaimer: Hi, I’m a researcher and writer. I’m not a doctor, lawyer, or businessperson. All information in my articles is sourced and referenced, and all opinions stated are mine. I am not giving anyone advise, and though I am more than happy to discuss topics, should someone have a further question or concern, they should seek guidance from a relevant professional.