Are you suddenly seeing delta-9 THC products on the shelves in bars, gas stations, or convenience stores near you? Since when has 7-11 been a dispensary, and is the product on display at all similar to what’s sold in a licensed cannabis dispensary? The current confusion can be traced back to one key moment in the battle for legal cannabis: The 2018 Farm Bill.
That landmark piece of legislation legalized the manufacture of products derived from hemp, a cousin of the cannabis plant that doesn’t deliver the same potent, intoxicating effects when smoked, but does include many of the same chemicals (cannabinoids). The Farm Bill allowed a framework for the legal sale of hemp-derived products like CBD oils, but also inadvertently created a grey market for truly intoxicating substances thanks to the fact, through manipulating the hemp plant, it turns out to be entirely possible to create byproducts that do very similar things as cannabis when smoked or ingested.
Though many consumers associate hemp with CBD, owing to this non-intoxicating cannabinoid’s dominant presence in the fibrous varietals over those bushy, THC-rich greens, hemp can be bred to have higher levels of intoxicating THC, just as cannabis can be bred to contain more CBD, or any of the other naturally occurring cannabinoids it produces, like CBG, CBC, and CBN.
Then there is the matter of synthetic cannabinoids, like delta-8 THC, THC-O, THC-P, and others. These don’t technically violate federal drug laws because they don’t contain the specific intoxicant in cannabis that makes it illegal—that would be delta-9 THC. While “old-fashioned” cannabis-derived THC is gated into regulated adult-use or medical shops, these synthetic, hemp-derived products may be available anywhere toilet paper and slushies are sold, and there seem to be more of them every year—including, now, products containing hemp-derived delta-9 THC. If you’re confused, you are not alone.
Hemp versus cannabis
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This is a new rush to provide “compliant delta-9 THC” to satisfy consumers who want access to the intoxicating effects of THC, but don’t live in one of the states that has legalized recreational use. With this loophole of supposed federal legality, everyone from the local mini mart to fancy grocers to online retailers have started stocking cannabinoids of all sorts—provided they can prove they came from hemp or a lab, and not a cannabis plant.
Taking hemp-derived extracts and using a lab process to make delta-8 THC, a similar cannabinoid to cannabis’ naturally occurring delta-9 THC (but not found in nature). But some brands aren’t synthesizing THC alternatives, and are instead collecting naturally occurring delta-9 THC from hemp plants. Because there isn’t much delta-9 THC in industrial hemp, they need to process huge quantities of the stuff to create products with intoxicating effects, but can do so as long as they are working with hemp containing less than 0.3% of THC on a “dry weight” basis. This “dry weight” language makes it very easy for manufacturers to produce products like vapes and edibles, since there are no guidelines in place governing how much dry cannabis can be used to create them.
But according to Dr.Peter Grinspoon, a cannabis expert and author, there’s a key difference between hemp producers and cannabis purveyors. “While in theory they do the same thing and act in the same way, in legal states, cannabis-derived delta-9 products are regulated carefully by the state, so you know exactly what you’re getting and exactly what you’re not getting,” he said. “No fungus, no heavy metals, no lead, no pesticides. Whereas the hemp-derived delta-9 extracts, just like all of the other extracts from hemp, are completely unregulated.”
There’s already a research gap with both cannabis and hemp—we don’t understand the full extent of how their cannabinoids operate in our bodies. That’s why many argue there should be more scrutiny on nationally offered cannabinoid products, not less, regardless of their source.
“I think that if even in theory it [hemp-derived delta-9 THC] is the same molecule, in practice it is much much more dangerous due to total lack of regulation,” Grinspoon said. He likens the current synthetic cannabinoids boom to a sort of “Wild West of synthetic compounds.” Due to a lack of rules and regulations, companies can claim to be selling only “natural” hemp-derived delta-9 THC, eliding the fact that they also contain synthetic cannabinoids or other herbs meant to increase feelings of intoxication.
Not only is this not safe for the consumers’ health, it overshadows the potential for cannabis to be a balanced part of someone’s life, or even a valid medical treatment, and not just a way to get high.
Grinspoon says to be wary: “You’re getting all these novel minor cannabinoids that are being marketed and exploited, some of which might ultimately show medicinal value, but they need a lot more safety testing. Given again how completely unrelated the whole industry is, and how inflated the marketing claims are, I think it’s become quite dangerous. I’m a huge believer in legal, regulated drugs with sensible regulation.”
What is hemp-derived delta-9 THC?
Brands are processing huge amounts of naturally grown, hemp-derived delta-9 to avoid the synthetic label, and this is probably your best bet for accessing delta-9 THC from somewhere other than cannabis. You already get small amounts in full-spectrum CBD products, which meet the .3% THC requirements of Farm Bill compliance, but to get near the potent buzz of cannabis-derived delta-9, you’ll need to research brands and products thoroughly to understand what you’re getting.
It’s worth noting that adult-use dispensaries are not scooping up hemp-derived delta-9 products to offer to their customers, even as popular cannabis brands begin to offer hemp-derived formulations of their products direct-to-customer on a national scale.
I asked JM Balbuena, author and managing partner of San Diego’s Jaxx Cannabis, an adult-use legal dispensary, for more insight into this nuance. She notes, “From a consumer standpoint, while flower remains the dominant product in the cannabis market, hemp-derived delta-9 THC has the potential to impact the infused edibles sector.”
If these developments prove anything, it’s that people want access to cannabis, and no one is sure if those willing to fill that need with hemp and synthetics are helping or hurting this access just yet.
”Education is a significant factor here,” Balbuena said. “Consumers need more information to trust that hemp-derived delta-9 THC can offer effects comparable to those of cannabis-derived delta-9 THC. Moreover, customer service representatives at convenience stores and smoke shops will also need proper education to guide consumers effectively.”
How to know if hemp-derived delta-9 THC products are safe
Unfortunately, that’s a difficult question to answer. What’s most important: knowing what you’re consuming. Quality brands provide a certificate of analysis, or COA, to certify what’s in their products. If you’re cautious, you can stick to naturally-derived delta-9 THC, whether it comes from hemp or cannabis plants.
Without action from the federal government, these loopholes will only cause confusion to proliferate. Meanwhile, cannabis advocates like Grinspoon just want to ensure product safety. “It’s the illegality[of cannabis] in certain states that is making people sick from unregulated hemp products,” he said.