When faced with chronic pain, anxiety, depression, other mood disorders and difficult-to-treat illnesses, our natural desire is to want to feel better fast no matter what it takes. But healing and learning how to manage your condition is a process that takes time.
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As doctors search for new kinds of treatments, new studies are needed to determine what’s healthy and effective and what poses more harm than good. That remains especially true for over-the-counter products that use CBD (cannabidiol, an ingredient in cannabis) and delta-8 (delta-8 tetrahydrocannabinol).
Although these products have become increasingly popular over the last few years, products that use delta-8 may present a wider range of risks than CBD, despite what retailers are promising.
Psychiatrist and addiction specialist David Streem, MD, explains why popularity doesn’t always equate to safe and effective. He also shares what we know about delta-8.
What is delta-8?
Delta-8 products are sold online, in head shops, gas stations and other specialty stores. They come in the form of delta-8 gummies, brownies, treats, vapes, tinctures, joints and raw flower or delta-8 extracts. Like CBD, delta-8 is just one of more than 100 chemical compounds found naturally (in very small amounts) in the cannabis sativa plant. Concentrated amounts of delta-8 can be synthetically created from CBD and hemp in a lab. This means many CBD products and delta-8 products on the market right now have much higher levels of delta-8 than what naturally occurs in raw extracts.
People are most familiar with delta-9 THC (delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol), the main psychoactive compound in cannabis that gives you that euphoric high when you use marijuana. Delta-8 is also a psychoactive compound that offers a similar euphoric high. Some studies suggest delta-8 may assist with a few medical conditions like:
But most of the evidence so far is anecdotal (from personal accounts, not actual research). More medical research is needed to determine the effectiveness — and risks — of delta-8.
Delta-8 risks and side effects
Because delta-8 is so similar to delta-9, it has the same set of risks and side effects, but with an increased risk for harm. As delta-8 products aren’t regulated, it’s possible you could ingest more of the chemical compound than is healthy. Additionally, many of the chemicals used to convert CBD into delta-8 add additional risk for illness. Some of the side effects associated with delta-8 include:
- Dry mouth.
- Trouble standing.
- Loss of consciousness.
- Memory loss.
- Trouble with coordination.
- Changes in appetite and weight.
Plus, there are other risks associated with getting high, drug tests, legality and potential poisoning.
Does delta-8 get you as high as delta-9?
People who use delta-8 THC products claim the high is not as strong as delta-9 THC, but there’s not yet any medical evidence that supports this. That’s partially because some delta-8 products contain some level of delta-9 THC and delta-10 THC (another chemical compound of cannabis about which we know very little). That means you never really know what you’re getting. But how does this happen when the packaging appears as if it’s delta-8 exclusive? It’s because the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) doesn’t regulate delta-8 products.
“In the U.S., we’re trained to expect the labeling of products is honest. But the fact is, in unregulated settings, like head shops and vape stores, there is absolutely no monitoring or accountability that the labeling of the products is correct,” stresses Dr. Streem. “There’s a perception that all delta-8 products are less potent, but I don’t think that’s particularly well supported by any real evidence.”
If you’re unaware of what you’re taking, you won’t necessarily know how it will affect you. This is especially true if you’re using a delta-8 product for the first time or not paying particular attention to dosage.
“One of the more significant risks is unexpected intoxication,” notes Dr. Streem. “If you become impaired and don’t realize you had any THC, you may feel off and may do something else like drive without knowing you’re intoxicated.”
Is delta-8 legal?
The 2018 Farm Bill legalized the production and sale of CBD products (which don’t get you high) on the federal level in the United States, as long as they contain less than 0.3% of THC. In theory, this would allow federal legalization of CBD products with delta-8 under those same guidelines.
The problem is, again, like supplements, delta-8 and CBD products aren’t regulated by the FDA, which warns that many of the chemicals used to synthesize concentrated amounts of delta-8 may be harmful. Because of this, the legality of delta-8 is still being decided at the federal level. This leaves each state to pass its own legislation to determine if delta-8 is banned, regulated on the state level, or legally marketable. If you’re unsure of the legality of delta-8 where you live, check with your local or state government.
The FDA has continued to get reports from national poison control centers about the toxicity of delta-8. From January 1, 2021, to February 28, 2022, there were 2,362 delta-8 exposure cases, 41% of which involved kids under 18, and 70% required healthcare evaluation.
“It’s likely that delta-8 is a less potent stimulator. But when you use a product that can’t reliably state on its label how much of the product is in the bottle, none of that really matters,” states Dr. Streem. “If there’s twice as much product in the bottle as what’s on the label, even if it’s less potent, you’re going to end up putting more of it in your body than you intended. And there could be a lot more delta-8 than what’s listed, or there could be no delta-8 at all.”
Does delta-8 show up on a drug test?
Delta-8 can show up on a drug test. There’s not yet any medical research to determine how long delta-8 stays in your system. But because it’s so closely related to delta-9 THC — and so often mixed with delta-9 THC without you knowing it — they’re believed to have the same parameters. A urine test could pick up traces of THC for up to two to three days after use, and up to 30 days for people who use these products frequently.
“For most drug tests, delta-8 is not going to create by itself a positive test. But delta-8 in many products is present alongside delta-9, and often it’s enough to turn the test positive,” says Dr. Streem.
Good alternatives for delta-8
If you’re looking for a safer alternative to delta-8, CBD may be worth a try. But you should still talk to a healthcare provider and check your state laws before trying any CBD products.
For one, there may be other treatments that could help with the specific underlying causes of any medical condition you may be facing. For mood disorders, there are different types of therapy and alternative medications that can help you manage your symptoms. And for more complex conditions like fibromyalgia associated with chronic pain, there are alternative treatments that can help with pain management.
Plus, we’re only just beginning to understand our body’s endocannabinoid system — a complex system of enzymes, neurotransmitters and receptors that play an important role in the development of our central nervous system. This system helps regulate a variety of functions, including pain, motor control, memory, appetite, inflammation and more. And researching this system and how it’s affected by delta-8 and other cannabinoids is paramount to making sure these products are safe to use.
“Medical researchers understand the value of using the endocannabinoid system in a reliable, safe way to treat psychiatric conditions, pain management and other medical problems,” says Dr. Streem.
“There’s very active research going on in these areas and I think more breakthroughs in this area are going to be coming in the near future. But products like delta-8 and delta-9 THC are unregulated and unmonitored, and their safety is questionable at best.”