Delta-9-THC is the main psychoactive component of cannabis, but it’s only one of the hundreds of compounds found in the plant. One of those compounds may be poised to challenge THC’s supremacy.
This time, it's not CBD. It's a derivative of THC itself, called Delta-8-THC.
The difference between Delta-9-THC (the THC most people are familiar with) and Delta-8-THC is small. There's a double carbon bond on the eighth carbon in the chain that makes up the compound, as opposed to the ninth. It can still get you high, yet that tiny change has allowed interest to snowball.
High Times calls the Delta-8-THC “the hemp industry’s latest hype.” Discover Magazine reports that “many cannabis users are turning to an obscure analog of Delta-9-THC.” In April 2020, Delta-8-THC became the subject of its own subreddit, r/Delta8, which now has more than 11,000 members.
The hype seems to hinge on the idea that Delta-8-THC delivers, per the cannabis platform Weedmaps, a “smooth high with no anxiety or paranoia.” (Anxiety, paranoia, and psychosis are all symptoms tied to high dosages of THC).
Peter Grinspoon is a primary care physician at Harvard Medical School. He’s also on the board of the advocacy group, Doctors for Cannabis Regulation. He tells Inverse that Delta-8-THC does have “vast” potential, as do many of the less-famous cannabinoids.
“I’m really excited to see what we come up with when we start breeding up, in evaluating all these different cannabinoids,” he tells Inverse. “I think Delta-8-THC is a perfect example.”
The difference between Delta-9-THC and Delta-8-THC
The molecular difference between Delta-8-THC and its famous cousin is small, but it’s enough to change how it binds to the brain. Grinspoon estimates it is about “two-thirds” as potent as Delta-9-THC.
THC binds tightly to CB1 receptors, which are found primarily in the brain, but present throughout the body. Those receptors are part of the endocannabinoid system – a network of receptors and chemicals that influence a variety of experiences including, mood, pain sensation, or stress.
THC’s chemical structure is similar to that of anandamide, a chemical that allows the brain to send messages as part of the endocannabinoid system. That similarity allows it to bond tightly. The structure of Delta-8-THC is slightly altered, so it doesn’t bind as well, explains Gabriella Gobbi, a professor at McGill University’s Department of Psychology.
“It’s for this reason that people think it’s less psychotropic – it has less of the effect of a high,” she says.
What are the effects of Delta-8-THC?
There isn’t much research directly on Delta-8-THC. Some of what we know about it comes from a 1990s study on children undergoing chemotherapy; it showed that the derivative prevented the vomiting associated with the treatment. Side effects like irritability and “slight euphoria” were only seen in two children. Though the authors noted that in children “euphoria” is hard to quantify.
Based on this early study, anti-nausea application is one potential avenue for exploration Grinspoon mentions. He adds that, based on patient experiences, this derivative “seems to be sort of more energetic and less sedating," also has potential as an appetite suppressant.
Still, all this work is very speculative. Many of the claims out there right now aren't on solid scientific ground.
“What we do see about it are little keys to its vast potential, but we don't really know because there haven't been that many studies,” Grinspoon says.
"We still don’t have a clear picture of Delta-9-THC. Even less so with Delta-8-THC.”
The potential future — Gobbi says Delta-8-THC's reputation as a foil to THC may just come down to the dosage most people are getting.
When scientists develop drugs, they aim to pinpoint a “therapeutic window” (or therapeutic index), a dosage that’s high enough to produce positive effects, and too low to produce unwanted side effects. Delta-9-THC, says Gobbi, has a narrow therapeutic window. Because Delta-8-THC doesn’t bind as well to the CB1 receptors, she suggests it might have a larger therapeutic window than Delta-9-THC.
In that case, you would need to encounter much more of it to experience these unpleasant side effects, which may be why some people don't report the same experiences they do with Delta-9-THC. It could also mean that dosages required to experience the potential upsides of the compound would differ from those seen in traditional THC, should they be confirmed, she says.
“We still don’t have a clear picture of Delta-9-THC,” says Gobbi. “Even less so with Delta-8-THC.”
For now, it’s too early to confirm that Delta-8-THC can deliver on the promises that the cannabis industry may be hoping for. Grinspoon in particular warns that it’s likely not going to be a cure-all, a reputation that CBD has acquired as hype outpaces science. Its legality on a federal, in turn, is ambiguous; in August the DEA proposed that derivatives of tetrahydrocannabinol be classified as schedule 1 controlled substances – but that ruling isn't finalized yet.
“I guess I hope that with Delta-8-THC people stick to the science and don’t try to oversell it,” Grinspoon says.
Those seeking a cure-all might end up disappointed.