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As more states across the country legalize cannabis, both licensed and unlicensed stores are popping up all over. Neon signs glow in their windows with familiar green leaves and ads for legal THC products. But amid the excitement, some unlicensed stores have been touting delta-8 products as a form of legal cannabis. Even in some markets where cannabis hasn’t been legalized, retail shops offer delta-8, THC-8, or synthetic cannabis as legal alternatives. But are these the same thing? What are the effects and, more importantly, the risks of these products? Let’s break down delta-8, THC-8, and synthetic cannabis, and compare them to traditional cannabis and THC.
Delta-8 is a short for delta-8 tetrahydrocannabinol, also called delta-8 THC or THC-8. It is chemically almost identical to delta-9 THC, the compound in cannabis plants that gives it its psychoactive properties. Both delta-8 and delta-9 bind to the same CB1 receptors in the brain, causing the user to feel “high.” A slight difference in the molecular structure may create a slightly weaker bond to these receptors for delta-8 than delta-9, and research suggests this may be why THC-8 has milder effects than its traditional counterpart. In fact, one of the claimed delta-8 benefits is that users experience a calmer, less anxious high than they do with delta-9 THC.
Is delta-8 legal? How is it sold in abundance while traditional cannabis is still illegal in so many markets? This actually comes down a legal loophole on the federal level. In 2018, the US government passed a bill stating that hemp could be grown legally as long as it contained less than 0.3% THC. But the authors of the bill specifically defined THC as delta-9 THC. With this oversight, delta-8 became legal, as it can be derived from hemp plants, which contain little to no delta-9 THC. While this loophole allows for delta-8 to be extracted and sold from hemp plants, it also means that the compound is widely unregulated and untested. And while this law applies on a federal level, some states have still made moves to bar legal cultivation and sales of delta-8 products. While many states have no regulation regarding THC-8, even some states like Colorado, which has very relaxed cannabis laws, have banned the use, possession, and sale of delta-8 products. Federally, the DEA is currently considering further restrictions on delta-8, and regulations may change suddenly, so it’s important to stay informed and up to date on delta-8 legality.
Delta-8 isn’t the only option being pushed as an alternative to legal cannabis. Unlicensed cannabis stores across the country have tried to push fake cannabis (also known as synthetic cannabis) as a safe and effective means for getting high and finding the relief that traditional THC and CBD bring to their users. These unlicensed stores go to great lengths to appear legitimate and safe, and users should be aware of fake THC dangers before making a purchase. While natural cannabis contains compounds that grow directly within the plant itself, fake cannabis contains synthetic compounds from laboratories that are sprayed onto dried plant material and sold as a legal alternative. These products are wildly untested and unregulated. Their effects are often unpredictable and can be damaging to both brains and bodies. Rapid heart rate, vomiting, unusual behavior, and dangerous or suicidal thoughts have been linked to synthetic cannabinoids. Use of fake cannabis can be dangerous and even life-threatening. While authorities have made synthetic cannabinoids illegal, manufacturers simply change formulas to dodge these laws and continue selling.
Identifying counterfeit cannabis can take some effort but shouldn’t be difficult for those with a keen eye. Customers should research their chosen retailers and brands carefully to ensure that they are dealing with trustworthy and legitimate suppliers and products. Be wary of suspiciously low prices, which could indicate fake cannabis. Licensed brands also provide lab test results to their retailers, so if you’re unsure about a product, ask the store for the product’s COA (certificate of analysis). If the store cannot provide one, it’s likely not a legal, regulated product (or dispensary).
Unlicensed cannabis stores pepper the retail landscape, especially in states with legalization. But purchasing cannabis products from these stores is loaded with risks and safety concerns. Buying cannabis from licensed stores is generally safe, as these businesses operate under strict regulation and only sell products which have been proven to meet the safety standards mandated by the state. For unlicensed cannabis sellers, however, there is no guarantee of quality, consistency, or accurate labeling in their products. That means cannabis at these stores may be synthetic or contaminated with dangerous pesticides, mold, or even heavy metals. Like fake cannabis, unlicensed stores may try hard to look legitimate, but it isn’t too difficult to tell the difference. Reputable dispensaries will prominently display their licensing information on their websites or in-store. When in doubt, state health departments usually have a list of licensed dispensaries who sell quality products.
By some accounts, delta-8 sounds just as good as delta-9 THC. It occurs naturally in hemp plants, it may provide a less intense high that is preferred by some users, and it can provide similar relief in medical patients. But when measuring delta-8 vs THC-9, there are some important differences. While delta-8 does occur naturally in hemp plants, it only occurs in trace amounts. Most delta-8 products are refined and synthesized from CBD, also derived from the hemp plant. This refining process is unregulated and untested, so some medical professionals are concerned that dangerous contaminants may find their way into delta-8 products. The FDA has even warned directly against delta-8 products due to potential risks, after receiving reports adverse effects including hallucinations, vomiting, tremors, and loss of consciousness. In contrast, the benefits of legal THC include regulated, tested products which don’t contain unknown synthetics or dangerous amounts of heavy metals.
The side effects of legal THC are well known and documented, and users can generally know what to expect when consuming legal THC products. However, delta-8 products and fake cannabis are uncharted territory and can cause any number of unknown complications. While delta-8 may be similar to delta-9, the synthetic nature of most products is a cause for concern. National poison control centers reported over 2000 calls related to delta-8 products in 2021, with one incident resulting in death. Meanwhile, fake cannabis often contains chemicals known to be harmful, and according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, are often even labeled as “not safe for human consumption”.
Fake cannabis is generally considered an unsafe option that users should avoid. Safe delta-8 consumption may be possible, but should still be considered very risky until more studies have been done and regulations are put in place to ensure no harmful additives make their way into the products. Legal THC, which is carefully monitored and rigorously tested, is the safest way to consume cannabis. It’s always important to consult with healthcare professional before consuming any cannabis, so you can be sure you’re getting the right product and dosage. Once you have that information, trusted sources such as friends, family, or reputable online communities can give insights on trusted legal cannabis stores and products. Check reviews and ratings so you can be sure to find a safe and trusted retail location. Then be sure to use the staff’s knowledge and be up front in asking about their safety protocols and testing processes. A reputable location will be happy to provide you with information on their products and safety standards.
The Controlled Substances Act of 1970 deemed cannabis a Schedule I substance, meaning it has high potential for abuse and no medical value. The other Schedule I drugs include ecstasy, LSD, peyote, quaaludes, and heroin. For comparison, cocaine and methamphetamines are considered Schedule II, or less dangerous, substances. Cannabis researchers and activists have spent decades lobbying congress to reconsider including cannabis as a Schedule I substance.
In late July 2023, the federal Department of Health and Human Services publicly recommended that cannabis be reclassified as a Schedule III substance. This reclassification would allow researchers to apply for federal grant money and greatly expand their efforts to learn more about the medicinal benefits of the cannabis plant. It would also mean the cannabis industry would no longer be subject to harsh tax penalties imposed on Schedule I & II substances. While the federal Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) has yet to make the reclassification official, the public support from the HHS is a massive step in the right direction.
Delta-8 is legal at a federal level, but legality varies from state to state. As of August 2023, delta-8 is legal in Massachusetts. While many reputable news sites can provide state-by-state guides for delta-8 legality, the safest way is to research your state directly. So far, these states have regulated, restricted, or banned delta-8: Alaska, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Idaho, Iowa, Louisiana, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, New York, Nevada, North Dakota, Oregon, Rhode Island, South Dakota, South Carolina, Utah, and Vermont.
While delta-8 and delta-9 THC are chemically very similar, a small molecular difference weakens the bond delta-8 makes to your brain’s CB1 receptors. This reportedly gives users a milder, less anxious high. But since delta-8 is extracted in small amounts from hemp plants, it is usually synthesized from hemp CBD before being sold in products, so its true chemical makeup in those products is unknown and unregulated. This could potentially result in a more dangerous product than traditional THC-9, which meets state-regulated safety standards.
Fake cannabis is made from spraying synthetic chemicals onto dried plant material. These chemicals are often unknown and unsafe for human consumption. Smoking or otherwise ingesting fake cannabis can result in tremors, heart problems, vomiting, and behavioral changes.
Reputable cannabis stores will have websites where they post their licensing information. This can often also be found in-store. Check for well-established and reviewed stores when purchasing legal THC products. When in doubt, state health departments usually have a list of licensed dispensaries who sell quality products.