So you’ve finished work, and you’re really, really thirsty.
You walk into a nearby bar and ask if they have any imported beer.
“Sure,” the bartender says. “We have Heineken and Dos Equis.”
A Heineken sounds like it would really hit the spot. “Great,” you say. “Let me have a Heineken.”
The bartender disappears for a minute, plops a glass on the bar, and pours your beer from an open green bottle. You take a long, deep swig, and…….wait!
“That’s not Heineken,” you say.
“Sure it is!” says the bartender. “It’s brand new! Heineken 0.0…alcohol-free!”
“Arrrrrgh,” you say.
There’s nothing wrong with alcohol-free beer. In fact, it can be the right choice if you have to drive home. But it’s best to know in advance what you’re getting.
That’s a somewhat tortured way of introducing the new kid on the block at CBD stores and online: Delta-8-THC. Of course, the first sign that something’s different about it is that it’s called THC, but you don’t have to go to a dispensary to purchase it.
But it’s best to know ahead of time what to expect. And while Delta-8 can deliver a very pleasant high – it ain’t the Delta-9-THC that you’re used to when smoking weed.
Here’s a closer look at what you’re getting when you buy Delta-8-THC, and why it’s different than Delta-9.
The best thing to do is to start at the beginning.
Exactly What Is THC?
Cannabinoids and the Body
We all know that marijuana contains the cannabinoid THC; it’s what gets you high. It’s also responsible for many of pot’s medicinal benefits.
Here’s the thing, though. “THC” is really just shorthand for the psychoactive component of weed. Its full name is Delta-9-THC (or to be complete, Delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol), and it’s just one of more than 100 cannabinoids in marijuana (1) (2). (We should mention that those cannabinoids – in different amounts – are also contained in hemp, the other type of cannabis plant. That information will be important later on.)
Why do cannabinoids affect the body when cannabis is smoked, vaped, or ingested? It’s because they’re similar to endocannabinoids, neurotransmitters that the body produces naturally.
Endocannabinoids are one component of the body’s endocannabinoid system (ECS), which regulates important human functions like metabolism, mood, and memory (3). Essentially, they’re the messengers in the system. Endocannabinoids tell the body which actions to take, and the messages flow through the ECS’s cannabinoid receptors.
Endocannabinoids aren’t the only substances that interact with the receptors, though. Since cannabinoids like Delta-9-THC are so similar to endocannabinoids, they also interact with the ECS receptors after they enter the body. That’s why pot makes you high and helps ease pain; it affects the signaling system that tells the body what to do and how to feel.
Delta-9-THC and Delta-8-THC: The Science
Let’s begin this section by explaining something you may never have known. In reality, Delta-9 – the substance most of us think of as THC – isn’t really native to the cannabis plant. Instead, the plant contains a cannabinoid called THCA, the “precursor” to THC (4). It only turns into Delta-9-THC when burned or heated; that’s why, for example, you have to “decarb” weed by heating it before it can be used in edibles.
Once it’s created, Delta-9-THC isn’t particularly stable. When the pot is stored for a while, exposure to oxygen can cause Delta-9 to oxidize and degrade, changing its chemical structure.
And when that happens, the substance that’s created is called Delta-8-THC – another substance that is not naturally contained in the cannabis plant and is only present in weed (and hemp) in tiny amounts.
Delta-9 and Delta-8 are virtually identical, as you’d guess from their names; they’re what scientists call analogs. The only physical difference between the two is the way that several molecules are bonded together. That small change, however, has a major impact on their properties.
One difference is that Delta-8 is only about half as powerful as Delta-9. Another: Delta-9 and Delta-8 don’t interact with the body’s ECS receptors in quite the same manner.
There are two groups of those receptors, known as CB1 and CB2 receptors. Researchers believe that the CB1 receptors are more important in this case since cannabinoids in cannabis actually attach (or bind) to the receptors – and Delta-9 and Delta-8 bind to them in a slightly different way because of their different structures.
Here’s why that’s important. Once cannabinoids attach to the CB1 receptors, it’s believed the receptors partially block the signals they send (5). That means not all of Delta-9’s “mind-altering” commands are sent to the brain. And it appears that because of its different physical structure, even more of Delta-8’s signals are blocked by the receptors.
In other words, there are two reasons why Delta-9 is more psychoactive than Delta-8.
- Delta-9 is more powerful.
- The ECS blocks more of the effects that Delta-8 produces.
OK, that’s the difference between Delta-9 and Delta-8 in scientific terms.
What differences will you actually notice?
Delta-8-THC vs. Delta-9-THC: User Experience
The reason why people are excited to find Delta-8-THC online or in their local “everyone welcome” CBD store is simple. It can get you high.
But here’s the reason why – as we mentioned at the start – it’s important to know what you’re getting. It’s still THC, and it can still get you stoned, but many people have described the experience provided by Delta-8 as “Pot Light.”
You already know that Delta-8 is only about 50% as potent as Delta-9 and that the ECS blunts its effects (pardon the pun) even more. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, however, because there’s more to the story.
Users often find that the high from Delta-8 is a more pleasant one than they’re used to. It’s psychotropic and euphoric, but definitely not as intense as you’d usually experience when smoking marijuana. That means it’s enjoyable to vape or ingest but likely to produce a gentler and clearer head high, which may enhance focus and sociability without producing couch lock or sedation.
Delta-8 is also much less likely to induce paranoia or anxiety in users prone to those conditions. It can be either relaxing or energizing, depending on the strain from which it’s derived.
One final difference between Delta-8 and Delta-9: Delta-8 can’t be smoked as a flower. Only minuscule amounts of it are present in cannabis so it has to be specifically produced for use in a separate form, usually concentrate. You can dab or vape Delta-8, and it’s also available in edibles. You just can’t roll it or put it into a pipe.
Delta-8 vs. Delta-9: Medicinal Benefits
It’s difficult to draw firm conclusions about the differences between the two forms of THC when it comes to health and medical benefits because not much Delta-8 research has been done yet.
The potential medicinal uses for the Delta-9-THC in marijuana are well-known by now (6). They include relief of chronic or severe pain, easing of stress and anxiety (in many patients), treatment for nausea, vomiting, and epilepsy, and appetite stimulation. It also contains strong antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and antibacterial properties.
Some of those same benefits also appear to be provided by Delta-8-THC, although many of the studies done so far have been with animal subjects, not humans.
Delta-8 shows promise for pain relief, demonstrated in different experiments with mice and rats (7) (8). It’s apparently even better at boosting appetite than Delta-9 (9). It’s definitely shown the ability to work as an antiemetic that prevents nausea and vomiting in children undergoing cancer treatment (10). And anecdotal reports claim Delta-8-THC has helped some people reduce stress and anxiety levels.
It’s also suspected that Delta-8 has neuroprotective properties, can help memory and learning, and may even have promise in fighting cancer. Those possibilities have yet to be proven, but research on both Delta-8 and Delta-9 continues.
Delta-8 vs. Delta-9: Availability
We’ve alluded to one of the biggest differences between the two forms of THC: availability. That comparison could be the most helpful of all – at least, for readers who are looking for a legal buzz.
Right now, marijuana (which contains Delta-9-THC once the pot is burned or heated) is only legally available at dispensaries in “legal” states (11). 15 states currently allow recreational use, and nearly 40 states have some form of medical marijuana program. Unless there’s a dramatic change in national attitudes, those numbers should only increase over time.
The amount of Delta-9 contained in CBD (which can be legally sold virtually everywhere) is minuscule, and it’s not enough to make anyone high. So the only way to legally obtain Delta-9-THC is by purchasing weed in the states where it’s legally sold.
Marijuana and hemp each contain tiny amounts of Delta-8 once their THC has become oxidized. Since hemp products like CBD are legal for sale throughout America, you’d think that hemp would be a good – and legal – the source of Delta-8.
You’d be right. And also wrong.
Here’s why. There’s so little Delta-8 in cannabis plants that it’s not worth extracting. Any company doing it would most certainly lose money on the effort.
There’s good news, though; CBD can actually be converted into Delta-8, thanks to the physical similarity of cannabis molecules. That process, called isomerization, creates enough Delta-8-THC to be sold commercially – and it is, in a growing number of CBD stores and online shops.
Sadly, the glory days of Delta-8 may not last long.
Right now, it appears to be legal under the provisions of the 2018 Farm Bill, which allows the sale of CBD and other products naturally produced from hemp (12). However, there’s another law that bans the sale of synthetic drugs (like K2 and spice) (13). And some people claim that isomerization is a process that “synthesizes” Delta-8, which would theoretically make it illegal.
The FDA (Food and Drug Administration) is trying to clarify the situation but in a very unhelpful way. It’s considering a new rule that would specifically ban psychoactive products like Delta-8.
The bottom line: legal Delta-8 is widely available right now. Chances are good, however, that it won’t be on the market for much longer.