Recently, the cannabis industry has been buzzing about Delta-8 THC, or Delta-8 tetrahydrocannabinol to give it its full name. This new trend has been the focus of a great deal of attention partly due to excitement over its potential as an alternative to other cannabis products, and partly due to discussion over where it sits in a legal gray zone thanks to new rules from the DEA.
So what exactly is Delta-8 THC? This guide will explain the compound’s chemical properties, its relationship to Delta-9 THC and CBD, how it makes you feel, its potential benefits and side effects, and the complexities of its current legal status.
What is Delta-8 THC?
Delta-8 THC, also simply known as Delta-8, is a secondary cannabinoid – in other words, it’s a compound found in the cannabis plant in smaller concentrations than primary cannabinoids like cannabidiol (CBD) and Delta-9 THC (which is what people usually refer to as just THC).
Delta-8 and Delta-9 THC are chemically extremely similar. The main difference is that their compositions vary slightly; both of them feature molecular double bonds, but Delta-8 THC’s is on the 8th carbon chain in the compound whilst Delta-9 THC has its double bond on the 9th carbon chain.
This difference is very subtle, but it’s more than enough to change the way that Delta-8 THC reacts with your body’s endocannabinoid system (ECS) which regulates various bodily functions, meaning Delta-8 has different effects to Delta-9 when ingested.
The most important difference is in the psychoactive properties of the two compounds. Delta-9 THC is highly psychoactive and intoxicating, leading to the signature high associated with weed.
Delta-8 THC, however, is less psychoactive. Taking Delta-8 will still lead to a high, but it tends to be a much less intense experience than from Delta-9 THC.
How is Delta-8 different from Delta-9 THC?
Because of the difference in their molecular structure, Delta-8 and Delta-9 THC work very differently when you ingest them. This is largely down to the different ways they interact with cannabinoid receptors in your body, leading to a difference in their potency and effect.
Attraction to Cannabis Receptors
The effect of Delta-8 and Delta-9 THC on the body largely comes down to their interaction with the CB1 cannabinoid receptor in the central nervous system, which influences the transmission of dopamine (a mood-regulating hormone responsible for feelings of pleasure and happiness).
Both types of THC bind to the CB1 receptor, which prolongs the effect of dopamine in the body and creates a feeling of euphoria. However, Delta-8 and Delta-9 have different affinities for the CB1 receptor, leading to differences in how it mediates the psychotropic effects of the two types of THC.
Potency and effects
Because of the difference in how the CB1 receptor regulates their psychoactive properties, Delta-8 and Delta-9 produce different highs. This manifests as a more clear-headed high from Delta-8 – whereas Delta-9 can lead to feelings of anxiety and paranoia after the initial period of feeling relaxed, Delta-8 users tend to report a more clear-headed feeling, experiencing a similar calmness with a much lower risk of anxiety.
As noted above, the key chemical difference in Delta-8 and Delta-9 THC is in the placement of their double bonds. This subtle variation leads to fairly pronounced differences in their chemical properties.
For instance, over time Delta-9 THC gradually oxidizes and breaks down into cannabinol (CBN), another secondary cannabinoid that loses most of THC’s effects. Delta-8 is much more stable, though, and does not oxidize as easily. As a result, Delta-8 THC products have a much longer shelf life than Delta-9 THC products.
However, Delta-8 and Delta-9 share one key chemical property which is very important to note.
While inhaling either compound (i.e by smoking or vaping them) allows them to enter the bloodstream directly and maintain their chemical composition, when ingested as an edible they both end up being converted into a different compound known as 11-hydroxy-THC by the liver.
This conversion means that both Delta-8 and Delta-9 THC end up having similar effects when ingested as edible rather than inhaled. While inhaling Delta-8 THC may not produce as intoxicating an effect as Delta-9, both will produce equally psychoactive effects when ingested as an edible.
Can Delta-8 THC get you high?
As discussed above, both Delta-8 and Delta-9 THC result in a high when ingested. However, the difference in how Delta-8 binds to your CB1 receptors tends to lead to lessened psychoactive effects and a more mellow, less intense high than Delta-9.
What a Delta-8 high feels like
Research on Delta-8 is very limited, meaning it is hard to say what its exact effects are when taken. However, there is enough anecdotal evidence from Delta-8 users to paint a picture of what a Delta-8 high feels like, with some scientific understanding provided by the few limited trials which have taken place.
Some of the feelings generally associated with Delta-8 THC include:
- A weightless, floaty feeling – some Delta-8 users have reported that it makes them feel as though they are floating, or that their body feels weightless. While there is currently no definite explanation for this, it could be a result of Delta-8’s effect on levels of acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter involved in contracting and relaxing muscles, leading to a feeling of weightlessness as muscles relax.
- The “Munchies” – one of the more well-documented effects of a Delta-8 high is an increase in appetite, similar to the “munchies” commonly associated with other cannabis highs. Beyond anecdotal evidence, a study of mice given Delta-8 THC resulted in a 16% increase in food intake, meaning increased appetite may be an effect of Delta-8 in humans too.
- Calm and relaxation – similar to Delta-9, Delta-8 reportedly has anxiolytic properties, meaning it reduces feelings of stress and anxiety.
- Increased happiness and energy – whereas the stereotypical idea of a THC high is of sleepiness and laziness, anecdotal evidence suggests that Delta-8 THC may actually increase energy. This may stem from the difference in its affinity for the CB1 receptor, allowing for the feelings of happiness associated with prolonged dopamine impact while not affecting energy levels.
Be aware that as with any cannabis product, the effects of Delta-8 will vary from person to person.
Delta-8 effects vs CBD
Aside from THC, the other main compound associated with the cannabis plant is CBD, or cannabidiol. Unlike THC, CBD does not bind with the CB1 receptor, and as a result, it is not intoxicating.
CBD is commonly used for its potential health benefits. Research suggests that CBD may have anxiolytic and anti-inflammatory effects, which means it may be effective for creating a sense of calm and relaxation and for relieving chronic pain.
In this regard, CBD is fairly similar to Delta-8 THC, but without the mild psychoactive properties that Delta-8 possesses. Because of this, Delta-8 is seen by some as a halfway point between the non-psychoactive, potentially health-boosting effects of CBD and the highly psychoactive, calm-inducing Delta-9 THC.
Benefits of Delta-8 THC
Aside from being used for a milder high than Delta-9 THC, Delta-8 THC is attractive to many users for its potential benefits for health and wellbeing. Research into these health benefits is limited and largely relies on preclinical animal trials rather than human studies, but nonetheless, there are a number of potential health benefits that have been reported from Delta-8 THC.
The CB1 receptors that Delta-8 THC binds to play an important part in pain regulation, meaning that Delta-8 may have anti-inflammatory and analgesic (pain-relieving) properties. This has been demonstrated in preclinical trials; for example, one study found that Delta-8 THC reduced inflammation and pain in mice with corneal injuries.
Fewer anxiety symptoms
Compared to Delta-9 THC, Delta-8 is anecdotally less likely to cause feelings of anxiety or paranoia when ingested. This may be because it does not bind as effectively to CB1 receptors – a 2017 study suggested that when the CB1 receptor is blocked, the subject experiences increased anxiety.
The National Cancer Institute lists a number of studies that suggest that cannabinoids such as Delta-8 THC may be helpful in treating and preventing certain types of cancer.
For example, one of the studies cited found that Delta-8 THC, Delta-9 THC, and cannabinol were found to inhibit the growth of Lewis lung adenocarcinoma cells (a form of tumor found in mice) both in vitro and in live subjects.
Delta-8 THC may have an antiemetic effect, meaning it helps to prevent vomiting and nausea. While there is limited research to demonstrate this, a 1995 study showed promising results: eight child cancer patients were treated with Delta-8 THC prior to receiving cancer treatments and again every 6 hours afterward.
The study found that vomiting was completely prevented in the patients and that the side effects were negligible.
It has been hypothesized that Delta-8 THC may have neuroprotective properties, helping to maintain healthy brain function. This mainly comes from the fact that it has been suggested that Delta-8 helps the production of acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter responsible for cognitive functions and memory.
Is Delta-8 legal?
This is where things get complicated. The legality of Delta-8 THC is something of a gray area thanks to the unclear language in legislation governing cannabis products.
The first thing to consider is the 2018 Farm Bill, which legalized hemp (the cannabis plant from which most CBD products are extracted) across the United States. The bill 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 percent.”
Since Delta-8 THC has no Delta-9 THC content, this would imply it is technically legal under the Farm Bill since most Delta-8 is synthesized from hemp CBD extracts.
However, some states chose not to adopt this specific language and so Delta-8 remains illegal there due to more precise rulings.
Muddying the waters further is the word of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). In 2020 the DEA released an Interim Final Rule stating “All synthetically derived tetrahydrocannabinol remain Schedule I controlled substances”, meaning that since Delta-8 is synthetically derived, the DEA classes it as an illegal Schedule 1 substance. Many have argued that the DEA failed to define what “synthetically derived” means.
This means there is a clash between the wording of the Farm Bill and the DEA’s ruling, creating a very murky picture of Delta-8’s legality. Despite its name, the Interim Final Ruling isn’t yet final, however – it’s open for review until October 2021, at which point a more definitive ruling is expected to emerge.
Can I order Delta-8 THC online or in the mail?
It depends on where you live – Delta-8 THC is legal for sale and mail order in some states, but illegal in others. Because of the legal gray area it sits in, some suppliers won’t ship to certain states even if Delta-8 is technically legal there in order to avoid any potential legal trouble, so check what individual suppliers’ policies are before you buy.
Generally, though, you’ll be able to get Delta-8 anywhere except for the 11 states which more explicitly prohibit its sale, which are Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Delaware, Idaho, Iowa, Mississippi, Montano, Rhode Island, and Utah.
Potential side effects of Delta-8 THC
While Delta-8 is generally believed to be fairly well-tolerated by humans and may avoid some of the side effects associated with Delta-9 THC, it may still lead to some side effects, especially if used in higher doses.
As with other cannabis products, Delta-8 THC can lead to a dry mouth. This is because cannabinoids inhibit the endocannabinoid system’s ability to signal to saliva glands, blocking saliva production.
Delta-8 THC is less likely to produce feelings of paranoia than Delta-9 THC, but it is still a potential side effect for certain users. This is usually caused by taking too high a dose; while Delta-8 has weaker psychoactive properties than Delta-9, higher amounts can lead to these properties intensifying and causing feelings of paranoia.
As with paranoia, taking too much Delta-8 THC can result in feelings of anxiety as a result of higher concentrations increasing its psychoactive properties. This may seem somewhat contradictory to its hypothesized potential as an anxiolytic, but the answer lies in starting with a low dose and building up to find the right amount for you.
Another side effect that Delta-8 THC shares with other cannabis products are the reddening of the eyes. This is because as the Delta-8 binds to cannabinoid receptors, the blood vessels in your eyes are signaled to dilate, increasing blood flow to them and making them appear red.
Dr. Rob Streisfeld is a Doctor of Naturopathic Medicine and trained Gourmet Natural Foods Chef. “Doc Rob” as widely known, provides an informed and innovative perspective with a focus on education, community, and health-driven lifestyle products.
A consultant & spokesperson for leading brands in the Natural Products Industry for nearly two decades, he’s traveled and lectured extensively, utilizing his creative & enthusiastic style to effectively communicate on a variety of health/ nutrition topics, including Cannabis and CBD. Doc Rob hosts a podcast, “Concierge for Better Living” on CannabisRadio.com, and launched the book series, The Cannabis Conundrum.