From hemp to high: Delta-8 THC
In November, Herbal Aspect made just two sales when the Madison-based online retailer only stocked CBD products. By the following month, the business started selling delta-8 THC — a chemical cousin of the main psychoactive component in marijuana — and sales soared to more than $10,000. Since then, the business has taken off “exponentially,” said Herbal Aspect co-founder Alan Robinson.
In the past year, delta-8 has boomed in popularity nationwide as the product — sometimes referred to as “marijuana light” — is billed to offer a euphoric high similar to but milder than marijuana. It occupies a legal gray area, allowing businesses in many states where cannabis is illegal to sell gummies, vaping devices, and other products infused with delta-8.
Delta-8 is found naturally in low concentrations in cannabis and hemp plants, but it can also be produced through a series of processes starting with raw material from hemp plants. Buds from hemp are turned into CBD oil — a nonintoxicating compound abundant in the plant and touted for medical benefits — which in turn is converted into delta-8.
Locally, delta-8 products are found at CBD stores and head shops but also inside Woodman’s Market locations or sold at booths during festivals. The unregulated aspect of the industry, though, is prompting concerns about consumer and product safety, which has no legally enforceable age restriction State Rep. David Bowen, D-Milwaukee, said there’s “concern across the board” about ensuring delta-8 is produced and sold safely, including from some inside the industry. The demand for delta-8 is “more evidence that we should be moving in a direction as a state to officially legalize marijuana and to officially provide medical marijuana as well,” he said.
Bowen, who has supported previous marijuana legalization attempts, said he and other legislators are working with legislative staff on potential bills regulating delta-8 in Wisconsin. We will be looking at a number of different angles to provide some regulation around delta-8,” he said.
Established in 2018, Green County Hemp began selling delta-8 products nine months ago, said co-owner and operator Brook Bartels. Now, the company’s delta-8 products account for about half of its sales, with the other half coming from CBD. The market is taking off for everyone who makes it,” Bartels said of delta-8.
The chemical structure of delta-8 is nearly identical to the main psychoactive component of marijuana, known as delta-9 THC, with the only difference being the position of a double bond on the compound, said Daniele Pio melli, director of the Center for the Study of Cannabis at the University of California-Irvine.
It’s a “good educated guess” both THC compounds, which bind to the same brain receptors, have similar psychoactive effects, said Piomelli, who has a doctorate in pharmacology. But with minimal research conducted on the traditionally overlooked delta-8, Piomelli said “we really don’t have the type of data that we need to be able to affirm that with certainty.”
Despite the slight difference between the two compounds, he said consumption of delta-8 could produce a positive result for THC in a urine-based drug test. Piomelli heads up the scientific journal Cannabis and Cannabinoid Research, which he said recently received its first paper on delta-8.
Despite businesses making significant investments in delta-8, the legal status of the product is surrounded by uncertainty, according to a legal brief produced last month by the nonpartisan Wisconsin Legislative Council. State and federal laws place a strict threshold on how much delta-9 THC can be contained in hemp or its byproducts but mention no limit on delta-8 THC.
According to the legal brief, the debate over legality boils down to whether delta-8 converted from hemp-derived CBD is protected by the federal 2018 Farm Bill, which legalized hemp and derivative products, or if the processing makes it a synthetic THC, which would be an illegal controlled substance.
The state Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection, which oversees Wisconsin’s hemp program, hasn’t tested any delta-8 products to see whether they’re above the delta-9 limit, but instead focuses on hemp production, said spokesperson Leeann Duwe.
The complicated question over its legality crosses multiple regulatory jurisdictions, Duwe said, and “these questions are still under discussion across various agencies and entities at different levels of government.”
Several states, including those where marijuana is legal and others where it’s illegal, have banned delta-8 products in the past year. Producers and retailers contend the recreational marijuana industry feels threatened by the burgeoning popularity of delta-8.
“The legal cannabis industry, ironically, isn’t thrilled with delta-8 THC,” Robinson said. “It’s a real disrupter because of the price point, because of anecdotal similar efficacy and relief that it provides in regards to delta-9 THC. It’s really quite similar.”
Bartels and Chalmers both want to see regulation of the industry. In the absence of state oversight, they said Green County Hemp polices itself to provide quality products, such as testing all goods through a third-party lab before the sale and being selective about what retailers it partners with.
I very much welcome regulatory measures implemented by the state, which I believe should be in place,” Bartels said. Robinson said Herbal Aspect also gets third-party lab results for potency and leftover residuals, known as certificates of authenticity, on all the products the company sells. Both Herbal Aspect and Green County Hemp have a 21-or-older policy for delta-8.
But Piomelli, the cannabis research director, takes a skeptical view of the delta-8 trend, calling it a “rather misguided ruse” to circumvent already muddy federal and state laws across the country on marijuana regulation.
“I’d rather the people use delta-9 THC, which we know and understand, and then use it responsibly because we know what the risks are, in terms of acute risks and long-term risks, rather than now experimenting on a relatively different compound, (about) which we have so little information,” he said.
Despite a majority of Wisconsin voters favoring legalized marijuana, the GOP-controlled state Legislature has rebuffed several attempts to adopt medical and recreational marijuana. Wisconsin has become an “island of prohibition,” a group of Democratic state lawmakers said when introducing the latest legalization attempt earlier this month, as all surrounding states have some form of legal cannabis use. Tim Nicholson sells delta-8 gummies through the website of his hemp-farming business, Driftless Dreams, and partnered with Woodman’s to sell them inside the grocery stores. If marijuana were legal in Wisconsin, Nicholson believes the market for delta-8 would largely dry up.
“People want legalized marijuana, which I will not be a part of — not morally and ethically, just because I think I’d get crushed by the bigger players,” he But Robinson said delta-8 products appeal to casual users of cannabis because of their comparatively lower potency, especially when, he said, the marijuana black market emphasizes high potency.
“A much more casual user can really get a lot of enjoyment out of what we have available,” Robinson said.
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