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Understanding Cannabinoids: What’s the Deal With Delta-8 THC?

ByTrichome Team

April 8, 2021

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Cannabis—whether hemp or high-THC plants—contains upwards of 100 cannabinoids. Two of the most well-known compounds are psychoactive tetrahydrocannabinol in the form of delta-9 THC and cannabidiol, or CBD. Another cannabinoid that’s muscling into the spotlight is delta-8 THC, and it’s raising questions for consumers. 

While delta-9 THC is still federally illegal, products containing it are widely available in states that have legalized medical cannabis and adult recreational use. Hemp-derived CBD, on the other hand, is legal across the country and products containing CBD can be manufactured, purchased and consumed so long as they contain less than 0.3% delta-9 THC. 

Then there’s delta-8 THC: The compound occurs naturally in small amounts in the cannabis plant, but some manufacturers and processors have been creating delta-8 THC in large quantities by synthesizing it from hemp-derived CBD isolate. While technically sourced from legal hemp plants, the legality of delta-8 THC itself is murky—and since its psychoactive effects can mimic those of delta-9 THC to a lesser degree, it’s important that consumers understand what they’re ingesting

We’ll explore delta-8 THC, why it’s getting more attention now and how manufacturers and processors can ensure consumer safety with accurate lab testing. 

What Is Delta-8 THC, and Where Does it Come From? 

Like other cannabinoids, delta-8 THC has “antiemetic, anxiolytic, orexigenic, analgesic and neuroprotective properties” according to the National Cancer Institute (NCI). However, its main function for many consumers is to deliver a “high” similar to the effects of delta-9 THC. While the NCI notes this THC analogue “exhibits a lower psychotropic potency,” delta-8 THC continues to gain popularity in markets where there is no legalized adult recreational use. 

Because delta-8 THC can be manufactured from hemp-derived CBD, it’s currently in a legal gray area. Concentrated delta-8 THC is added to products from gummies to vape cartridges, and even sprayed on low-THC hemp flower and then sold as a smokable product.

Delta-8 THC isn’t naturally found in significant concentrations in raw cannabis like other cannabinoids are, and production methods raise concerns about consumer safety.

Molecular structure of delta-8 THC:

Molecular structure of delta-9 THC:

Manufacturers use solvents such as toluene, hexane and others, along with acid catalysts like toluenesulfonic acid and boron trifluoride to convert CBD isolate into concentrated delta-8 THC. This chemical reaction, though, doesn’t just result in delta-8 THC. Other THC isomers such as delta-9 THC are produced, as well as unwanted byproducts which may find their way into the final consumable product.

Is Delta-8 THC Safe? 

It’s difficult to say whether synthesized delta-8 THC is safe one way or the other. We’ve got hundreds of years of documented effects and scientific study of delta-9 THC and only a few years of anecdotal evidence on the effects of delta-8. The issue is further complicated because delta-8 THC is still largely unregulated, and many labs aren’t equipped to accurately test products containing delta-8 THC for other isomers or contaminants. 

The truth is, the reaction byproducts produced by the conversion of CBD to delta-8 THC have not been rigorously studied, and preliminary evidence suggests that isomers that don’t naturally occur at all in cannabis are being created in the conversion process and showing up in consumer products. 

These byproducts and residual solvents may be removed with further purification methods, but it appears few companies are adequately purifying their delta-8 THC—if at all. Owing to lax oversight of the hemp product industry, there’s no regulation for removing these isomers or residual solvents. That leaves a number of unanswered questions for consumers, especially those who ignite and inhale products containing delta-8 THC, as the combustion process can cause other chemical changes. 

Testing is Key

Further difficulties arise in the potency testing of delta-8 THC products. For processors, it is important to contact your testing lab to ensure that the lab is familiar with delta-8 THC products and knows how to test them. 

As seen in the below chromatograms generated during the analysis of delta-8 THC products, poorly maintained instruments and / or lack of resolution can easily result in misidentification.

The delta-8 peak in the low-resolution chromatogram shown to the left elutes closely with delta-9 and other compound peaks, which often cannot be resolved and get lumped together into a single peak, resulting in artificially high delta-8 THC concentrations and false-negative results for delta-9 THC. As you can see in the chromatogram on the right, a higher-resolution analysis results in a more accurate read of delta-8 THC concentration as well as a more accurate representation of the product’s delta-9 THC potency.  

While delta-8 may be arguably legal, delta-8 contaminated with over 0.3% delta-9 THC is not. It is important to accurately differentiate and quantify the levels of both delta-8 and delta-9 THC to protect both manufacturers and consumers. The key is good chromatography, certified reference standards and possibly employing other confirmation methods such as photodiode array and mass spectrometry detectors. Other lab testing considerations for delta-8 THC products include residual solvent testing to be sure solvents used in the conversion from CBD to delta-8 THC have been removed and are at levels deemed safe for consumption, per established regulations. 

In short: While the legality of D8THC is arguable, D9THC is still (unfortunately) very much illegal. Since D9THC is a byproduct of the conversion of CBD, make sure your lab can see it when it is there before your product goes to market.

While regulations are still catching up with the delta-8 THC trend, consumers can focus on sourcing products from brands that are transparent in their manufacturing and testing methodologies. And for processors and manufacturers with questions about delta-8 or other emerging trends in cannabis, we’re here to answer your questions.