New Legal Drug Craze Is Causing Major Concerns For Chemists

Cannabis is losing popularity as another cannabinoid, 8-tetrahydrocannabinol (delta-8-THC), is gaining prominence. Delta-8-THC is increasingly being sold in gummies, vape cartridges, tinctures, and other items at gas stations, convenience stores, tobacco shops, and cannabis dispensaries across the United States and beyond—often with no age limits.

Unlike CBD, delta-8-THC causes euphoric effects comparable to but milder than those of delta-9-THC, cannabis’s most well-known psychoactive component. The isomer delta-8-THC of delta-9-THC is delta-8-THC. The two molecules are identical except for the placement of a double bond between two carbons.

The delta-8-THC craze began when the price of CBD produced from US-grown hemp plummeted due to overstock. Producers began exploring methods to monetize the excess of CBD. Using straightforward chemistry described in the 1960s, the business became inventive and began experimenting with methods of converting CBD to delta-8-THC. The resulting products are aimed at users seeking to alleviate tension and anxiety, particularly those who do not wish to use traditional cannabis products or who live in jurisdictions where cannabis products are not legal.

However, because there is little governmental monitoring and laboratory testing is limited, the majority of goods marketed as delta-8-THC are not genuinely pure delta-8-THC. Typically, such compounds have a high concentration of delta-8-THC and trace levels of other cannabinoids, such as delta-9-THC, and reaction byproducts. Certain cannabinoids are not found naturally in cannabis. In the majority of cases, little is known about these contaminants’ health implications.

Several states have begun to impose restrictions on the sale of delta-8-THC products. However, as long as they are produced from hemp and contain less than 0.3 percent delta-9-THC by dry weight – the federal legal limit — many lawyers and hemp industry executives consider them legal. Whatever the legal status of delta-8-THC, chemists are raising concerns after discovering multiple undiscovered chemicals in goods marketed as delta-8-THC.

“My concern is that we have no idea what these products are,” says Christopher Hudalla, president and chief scientific officer of ProVerde Laboratories, an analytical testing firm with facilities in Massachusetts and Maine. “Consumers are being used as guinea pigs. To me, that’s horrific,” he says.

ProVerde scientists examined thousands of products labeled with delta-8-THC using chromatographic procedures with UV or mass spectrometry detection. “As of yet, I have not come across a legitimate delta-8-THC product,” Hudalla explains. “There is some delta-8 in there, but there are frequently up to 30 unidentified [chromatographic] peaks.” There are frequently also peaks associated with delta-9-THC and another isomer, delta-10-THC, he observes. Although little is known about delta-10-THC’s effects, individuals have reported feeling euphoric and more concentrated after eating it.

“I’m less concerned with traditional THC isomers than I am of the ubiquitous unknowns,” says Michael Coffin, chief scientist at Elevation Distro, a California-based cannabis manufacturing and distribution firm. “Delta-8, delta-9, and even delta-10 don’t seem to have any ill effects on people that we know of at this point,” he says. But a lot of people are doing a poor job of cleaning up their reaction products, he adds, which results in “quite a soup” of by-products and other unwanted compounds.

CBD is converted to delta-8-THC by refluxing it with p-toluenesulfonic acid or another acid that acts as a catalyst in an organic solvent such as toluene or heptane. Typically, the reaction is conducted for 60–90 minutes. “Essentially, you close the ring around the CBD molecule,” Coffin explains.

It is feasible that one day, cannabis plants will contain sufficient delta-8-THC for pure extraction. However, for the time being, cannabis plants typically contain less than 0.1 percent delta-8-THC. “We have seen reports of plants containing as much as 1%,” Raber says. To extract delta-8-THC economically from cannabis, concentrations of roughly 15–20 percent are required. “Geneticists are pursuing that now,” he says, but synthetic items will continue to dominate for some time.

Raber is also concerned that if regulators merely prohibit delta-8-THC, as they did with delta-9-THC, “individuals will synthesize delta-10-THC or other ring isomers or alkyl chain analogs,” such as tetrahydrocannabivarin. Raber warns that some of these analogs may be poisonous or “extremely psychoactive.” The regulatory language must be comprehensive, or “you will be trapped in this multiyear legislative fix cycle.” This is in contrast to the 2018 farm bill, which set a cap on the amount of delta-9-THC contained in hemp and hemp-derived products such as CBD.

Gerdeman is particularly concerned about another cannabinoid called THC-O-acetate, or THC’s acetate ester, which he has noticed appearing in gummies and vapes. It is essentially THC that has been acetylated, which does not occur naturally in cannabis plants, he explains. Heroin was created over a century ago by acetylating morphine, resulting in a medication that is significantly more potent than morphine due to pharmacokinetics, Gerdeman notes. “Do we have data on the effects of acetylated THC in humans? “Not at all,” he responds. And, like with delta-8-THC, there is no information about the other ingredients in those goods.

According to Hudalla, without stronger regulation, consumers would continue to be deceived by unethical producers. For delta-8-THC, he argues, “we need to educate the public” about the fact that it is a synthetic molecule derived from a hemp constituent. “As with the manufacture of methamphetamine from cold medicine, the legality of the raw materials does not guarantee the legality (or safety) of the finished product,” Hudalla cautions. As is the case with many chemists, he feels delta-8-THC is an illegal synthetic cannabinoid.

“Many participants in the hemp industry see delta-8-THC as the salvation, providing a financial bridge until the [US Food and Drug Administration] approves CBD as a dietary ingredient,” Hudalla says. “But I do not believe that it should be at the expense of unsuspecting consumers, who are being misled about what products they are being sold, to bail out the producers and investors who gambled on the CBD market,” he says.

“I believe that delta-8 has a legitimate place in therapeutics and potentially adult use,” Hudalla adds. “But I just don’t see anybody doing it appropriately. It’s all bathtub gin.”

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