Slacker’s Syllabus: Delta-8-THC

Maxine McCrann

Cannabis gets a rep for lulling us into chill, happy baby pose bliss. But with weed, there can be a fine line between soothing and scary. Overindulging can send you plummeting into paranoia and panic.

A compound known as delta-8-THC — considered to be something of a “weed lite,” is believed to create in a gentler high, without the anxiety.

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Because this sounds a little too good to be true, I turned to Lewis Nelson, chair of the department of emergency medicine and chief of the division of medical toxicology at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School, to help me better understand the buzzy compound.

Here’s everything you need to know about delta-8-THC, including whether it really does offer a smoother high.

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What is delta-8-THC?

The compound in cannabis responsible for getting you high is known as tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC for short. But when people say “THC,” they’re typically referring to a form of THC called delta-9-THC, Nelson tells me.

Delta-8-THC has a slightly different structure. The two “are very similar, but differ by a double bond [a type of chemical bond] in a different place on the molecule,” Nelson explains. Both bind to what are known as cannabinoid receptors 1 and 2 (CB1 and CB2), which Healthline says are found primarily in the nervous system.

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Like delta-9-THC, delta-8-THC is sold in a plethora of products, including but not limited to tinctures, edibles, and delta-8-THC-infused hemp flower.

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Can delta-8-THC really get you high without the anxiety?

Nelson cites a 1973 Clinical Pharmacology & Therapeutics study which found that delta-8-THC is half as potent as delta-9-THC. Basically, 20 milligrams of delta-8 is equal to 10 milligrams of delta-9.

If you take the same numerical dose — say, 10 mg of delta-8-THC and 10 mg of delta-9-THC — delta-8-THC may lead to a milder high with fewer side effects, Nelson explains. But if you take the same functional dose — 20 mg of delta-8 and 10 mg of delta-9 — the effects will be the same, he says.

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You can’t pop delta-8-THC indefinitely without ever getting paranoid. Take enough, and you’ll start spiraling into the weed scaries.

It does appear that it’s a bit of a mind trick or a marketing technique to make the drugs sound different because they sound like they’re qualitatively the same but quantitatively different. ... The more you take of delta-8, the more it looks like delta-9.

Lewis Nelson, chair of the department of emergency medicine and chief of the division of medical toxicology at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School

In contrast, cannabidiol, or CBD, is qualitatively different from delta-9-THC, Nelson explains.

CBD doesn’t get you high or nervous, period, so you can take as much as you want without awakening your anxiety.

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What makes delta-8-THC less potent than delta-9-THC?

The difference in the location of the double bond in delta-8-THC changes the compound’s structure, Nelson says. It’s probably safe to say that as result, the interaction between delta-8-THC and the CB1 and CB2 receptors is less effective than that between delta-9-THC and these receptors. “Small changes in the chemicals have real changes in their properties,” he points out.

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Is delta-8-THC legal?

Delta-9-THC is federally illegal under the Controlled Substances Act, Discover reported, but there wasn’t an explicit legal ban on delta-8-THC until the DEA revised its list of controlled substances in August.

If delta-8-THC is extracted from weed, then it’s illegal, according to the magazine. But many companies assume that if it’s derived from hemp, then it’s legal under the 2018 Farm Bill. Like weed, hemp is a member of the Cannabis sativa family but contains very low levels of delta-9-THC — less than 0.3%, Nelson explains.

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The Farm Bill “tried to define hemp as a legal substance either to get CBD or to use for rope or whatever else you use hemp for,” Nelson says, noting that it didn’t comment on delta-8-THC or the plant’s other psychoactive compounds.

He explains that people have been taking advantage of this loophole with hemp that in some cases has been bred to have a high concentration of delta-8-THC. Whether this is legal varies by state, with some defining hemp as containing no inebriating agents, and others as having a certain concentration of delta-9-THC.

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The bottom line

Delta-8-THC doesn’t necessarily give you all the benefits of delta-9-THC with none of the downsides.

Delta-8-THC can impart a milder high than an equivalent dose of delta-9-THC, but it doesn’t magically protect you from anxiety. And if you do decide to imbibe in delta-8-THC, know that you might be wading into some hazy legal territory, not unlike you would if you were to smoke weed. When it comes to cannabis, and wellness in general, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

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