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Delta-8-THC: The rise and fall of a cannabis "Wild West"

Delta-8 exploded in popularity in 2020, but much of what's on the market could be unregulated or unsafe.

In 2018, Dustin Powers set out to help marijuana enthusiasts turn lead into gold.

Except, in this case, the lead was cannabis in all its forms, and the gold was, admittedly, still cannabis but bespoke cannabis for the discerning pothead.

Powers set up an internet forum called Future4200. Initially, the forum was a home for all types of marijuana-based science experiments. Then, in March 2021, a new post appeared. In it, the user promised a feat of modern alchemy: the method for turning CBD, a popular form of cannabis derived from legal hemp, into Delta-8-THC, a form of the psychoactive compound Delta-9-THC. (THC is the chemical in marijuana that gets you high.)

“Basically every major revolution in cannabis processing has happened in this forum,” Powers tells Inverse.

That includes the recent explosion of Delta-8, which has since expanded across the internet, including on YouTube where channels like extraktLAB (pictured at the top of this story) post informative DIY videos on how to synthesize your own at home.

“It's the Wild West for Delta-8.”

Delta-8-THC promises a “less anxiety-inducing” high than the THC found in weed, its users say. It also exists in an attractive legal gray area. Nationally, products containing Delta-9-THC (like marijuana) are Schedule I drugs, which means the Drug Enforcement Administration tightly regulates them. Delta-8 is legal on the federal level and can be sold in CBD shops, though some states are beginning to ban it.

But just as the legality is unclear, it is also not clear how safe all the Delta-8 on the market actually is. Keith Holecek, the managing director of data services at cannabis and hemp analysis firm New Leaf Data Services, tells Inverse that a lot of the Delta-8 on the market could be unregulated or even unsafe.

“There are definitely operations that cut corners and are producing junk. More than anyone would like to see,” Holecek says. “But with the FDA still in limbo on their rulings, it's the Wild West for Delta-8.”

What is Delta-8?

Rapeepong Puttakumwong/Moment/Getty Images

Called the “fastest-growing segment” of products derived from hemp, Delta-8-THC has exploded onto the marketplace. A big reason why is because, as that 2011 poster on Future4200 knew, you don’t actually need marijuana to create Delta-8-THC. You don’t even really need hemp.

All you need to create Delta-8 is CBD, a product that can be extracted from hemp and sold by the bucketload. You also need the chemical know-how to generate an isomerization reaction — a process by which one compound is chemically rearranged to form another.

Several cannabis industry sources confirm to Inverse that most of the Delta-8 on the market right now — from vapes to gummies or edibles — isn’t actually extracted from hemp. (There’s not enough Delta-8 in the natural plant to support the industry.) Rather, it’s converted from CBD using that process, which involves combining the compound with some form of acid, a solvent, and heat. The final product also must be remediated and tested to make sure no accidental byproducts remain.

“Lots of guys are doing hundreds and hundreds of kilos a week.”

“The technique to convert CBD Isolate (derived from hemp) into Delta-8-THC has been around for a while,” says Holecek. “From our understanding, the CBD Isolate is then put through an isomerization process to create the Delta-8 distillate, which comes in different qualities.”

That process has been refined by professional (and some less than professional) experimenters. And it’s only growing in popularity. Chris Barone, a chemist and the creator of The Clear, a cannabis distillate company, says about 95 percent of CBD purchases from his hemp extraction facility are by people interested in doing these conversions.

“Conversion of CBD to Delta-8 and Delta-9 is definitely growing,” Barone tells Inverse. “I hear through the grapevine of lots of guys who are doing hundreds and hundreds of kilos a week. I'd say people are probably better at it in the real world than any of the published patents or papers because you've got so many more hours of people doing the work.”

The problem with Delta-8

Testing for THC isomers is “evolving and not standardized.”Shutterstock

After an initial Delta-8 boom, some states are beginning to crack down on isomerization reactions. In late April, Washington State’s Liquor and Cannabis Board issued a statement noting that THC isomers created via chemical reactions (of which Delta-8 is one) can’t be sold. In May, New York, which recently legalized recreational marijuana, amended regulations for hemp processors to specifically outlaw isomerization reactions that create Delta-8 and Delta-10-THC.

A presentation given by the Oregon Liquor Control Commission notes it is “unclear whether there are long or short-term health effects” from ingesting the “impurities” created through manufacturing Delta-8-THC. Online, those impurities are sometimes referred to as “mystery peaks” because they represent unknown entities on a chromatogram — a type of test often used to catalog the contents of a mixture and commonplace in the cannabis industry.

For its part, The Washington Liquor and Cannabis Board notes testing for THC isomers is “evolving and not standardized.” So even when testing is done, it’s unclear whether labs are actually testing for the right contaminants in the first place.

As of late June 2021, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Delaware, Kentucky, Idaho, Iowa, Mississippi, Montana, New York, North Dakota, Rhode Island, Utah, Vermont, and Washington have all passed laws banning or further regulating Delta-8. Meanwhile, Alabama, Illinois, Michigan, Oklahoma, Oregon, and Texas are all considering similar legislation.

“Homie, please stop while you’re ahead.”

Meanwhile, members of the Delta-8 industry, on Future4200 and elsewhere (like on Reddit), are worried that not all manufacturers are taking care to even identify mystery peaks in their products. Claims of shoddy chemistry are flying, and veteran users are warning that a new generation of cannabis chemists don’t have the chops to perform isomerization reactions.

“Homie, please stop while you’re ahead,” one user replied to the March 2021 post. In a separate thread dating back to 2020, another user noted queries about isomerization reactions are starting to proliferate. “I see a ton of people on here asking questions about isomerization, and I feel like a lot of you (myself included) really aren’t equipped to start down this path,” the post warns.

“This might be doing a disservice to the Delta-8 market in general if a legislator picks this up and reads it. It sucks to say, but there is a lot of product on the market that is not properly treated and should not be on the market,” says Woody Mooers, the CEO of Nectris Labs, a hemp processing company, and Outpost Brands, a company that manufactures gummies, vapes, and topicals.

“The majority of Delta-8 — upwards of 50 percent — that I’ve picked up and analyzed have a lot of these contaminants and runoff reactions,” Mooers says.

Add the concerns of cannabis chemists to an increasing number of states that are investigating the legality of Delta-8 in the first place, and the whole industry seems to be waiting for the other shoe to drop.

Future4200

Future4200 exists in a long lineage of cannabis-based forums starting in the 1990s.Getty/Future4200

It’s impossible to attribute the rise of Delta-8 to one website alone. But it’s hard to imagine the chemistry that enabled it would have been so accessible without Future4200.

Future4200 exists in a long lineage of cannabis-based forums starting in the 1990s. An early “marijuana edge forum” was overgrow.com, which was created in 1998 but shut down in 2006. (It’s now active again.) Another is ICMag, short for International Cannagraphic Magazine, where growing and extraction techniques are still discussed.

These forums have long been places where people could congregate and share cannabis-growing tips. Future4200 specifically caters to people interested in serious cannabis chemistry, extraction, and processing.

“Most of the big boys have moved on to Future4200.”

Here are a few recent posts on Future4200:

As JD Ellis, a site administrator at The GrayWolf’s Lair — sort of like Wikipedia for people interested in DIY cannabis — puts it, “most of the big boys have moved on to Future4200.”

Papers and patents are easily findable on Future4200’s “data dump” threads. How-to guides are also baked into the site’s DNA.

Dustin Powers, the forums’ creator, tells Inverse that when he created the forum, he initially released a number of standard operating procedures (SOPs in industry-speak) for performing certain forms of cannabis chemistry. Those SOPs created a type of cannabis processing hive mind, where users would critique each other’s methods and post their results publicly.

That culture persists today. Mooers likens it to the scientific peer revision, but on Future4200 it happens in real-time, with users’ identities (and backgrounds) concealed behind screen names. It’s the beating heart, and slightly mad scientist-like brain, of the cannabis processing underground.

Inside the Delta-8 community

Future4200 can be a bit rough-and-tumble.Shutterstock

Cannabis home scientists rediscovered Delta-8 several years ago (in about 2016, Powers says), but the processes that allowed it to grow exponentially have slowly been workshopped on Future4200.

“People who were converting the distillate on accident to Delta-8 started to document their journey on the forum,” Powers says. “The whole time they were actively communicating what was happening and documenting the process on the forum so it kind of just naturally evolved out of that.”

Future4200 can be a bit rough-and-tumble. The forum lacks the moderation of most subreddits or the algorithmic organization of Instagram or Twitter. The result is a free-for-all where intense discussion of cannabis chemistry science meets the chaos associated with message boards.

“It has made things easier, but it has made things a little more dangerous for the end consumer.”

Powers calls Future4200 a “very open-source and open dialogue site.” Moderation is done with a light touch. Two instances of doxxing or personal attacks will land a user a ban per the site’s guidelines. Otherwise, most posts are permanent.

Powers is adamant that Future4200 doesn’t filter out unconventional ideas or even methods of cannabis processing. That freedom is either Future4200’s greatest strength or its biggest liability depending on who you ask.

“I would say 4200 has made things a lot easier for people to search for [scientific] concepts,” says the user behind the Instagram account breaking.dabs, an engineer with 10 years of cannabis industry experience. (The user declined to share their whole name for this story.)

“But to me, it’s a double-edged sword,” he continues. “There’s no way of vetting which methods are correct except in the comments section. It has made things easier, but it has made things a little more dangerous for the end consumer.”

“Delta-8 is good; it's just the way people go about making it.”

When Inverse asked Powers if he worries about people trying untested conversion methods, he says the community is capable of policing itself. Rather than removing information, he argues it’s better to air out all concerns about scientific validity and safety in public.

“It happens all the time,” says Powers. “People will find a procedure that’s in the scientific literature, or they’ll find a patent from the ‘60s or ‘70s and they’ll say, ‘Hey, we’re trying this process with all these weird chemicals.’ Almost immediately, people will pop up and say, ‘Maybe you can make something safe for an end-user, but this isn’t safe for you to do on your own.’”

It’s true that there are cannabis experts on Future4200. One of them is Bryan “Dillon” Boscia, a research chemist who has worked in radiopharmaceuticals, nanomaterials, and does scientific consulting for the cannabis industry as the founder of Boscia Scientific Consulting. Under the screen name @photon-noir, Boscia first started advising peers in the cannabis industry in 2015 on Instagram but now continues to do so on Future4200.

Powers describes Boscia as a “sensei” — a chemist who has classical training and experience with cannabis. He was an early contributor who wasn’t afraid to apply his skills to cannabis in a public forum.

The isomerization reaction needed to make Delta-8 isn’t especially challenging to do, says Boscia. But from his perspective, it does come with risks if done poorly.

“Delta-8 is good; it’s just the way people go about making it,” he tells Inverse. “Some people are very unscrupulous; some people just don't know what they’re doing. There’s certainly the possibility for it to be dangerous. People who are just experimenting or get some weird method that doesn't necessarily clean things up may have leftover catalysts, for example, in their product.”

Boscia says he tries to ensure people understand the fundamental chemistry of the extractions or conversions they’re attempting. But as with any internet message board, the quality of the conversation hinges on both the knowledge and good intentions of the people doing the talking.

Without clear regulations on how certain Delta-8 products should be made — plus the allure of selling THC through a federal loophole — more inexperienced users are being drawn into the fold.

The perilous rise of Delta-8

“There’s money available and all of the sudden there’s these unscrupulous people trying to get their part.”Shutterstock

With the plethora of cannabis chemistry knowledge available and the price of CBD at rock bottom, the barriers to entry into the Delta-8 market, as Mooers puts it, “have broken entirely.”

“This is where the forum treads a line that sometimes is difficult for me to get behind,” he continues.

“When you enable people to do these things, it doesn’t mean they’re always going to do them the way the forum has it written. When it’s handed to you in an easy step-by-step guide, it becomes very enticing, especially with the price point on Delta-8.”

The result is a Delta-8 market that’s fast-moving, prone to malpractice, and intensely mistrustful of itself. Future4200 may have been the crucible where the Delta-8 revolution was forged, but it is also presiding over the industry’s reckoning.

Accusations of shoddy Delta-8 chemistry abound on Future4200 — there’s a whole thread dedicated to it. Many users direct these accusations at a theoretical cadre of newbies who are just there to cash in on the demand for Delta-8.

“Instead of being a bunch of people who are interested in cannabis and sharing, you have people who are interested in money.”

The long-time members of the Future4200 community and other cannabis online forums may be a bit rough around the edges. Forum administrator Ellis likens them to “outlaws.” But, he says, they had different goals compared to this supposed newer group of sellers interested in Delta-8, other processes, and the growing market for niche cannabis products.

“Instead of being a bunch of people who are interested in cannabis and sharing, you have people who are interested in money,” says Ellis. “It brings a whole other group just like it did in the gold rush in California or Alaska, or how the end of the Civil War brought in the carpetbaggers and the scalawags.”

“There’s money available and all of the sudden there’s these unscrupulous people trying to get their part.”

Instagram account @breaking.dabs is also concerned that this new group of experimenters does not consider what might go wrong during a reaction. You can follow the steps posted online, but converting CBD into THC isn’t the same as following a recipe. If you don’t understand what’s happening, it’s easy to end up with a product that might contain leftover acids or other unidentified byproducts.

“They're just trying to make a buck, and they don’t know what they're doing,” he says. “Because, to be honest, they haven't done the research into chemistry enough to know more than what they followed as a recipe.”

“You probably should not be going to the gas station and buying some random Delta-8.”

The Delta-8 industry is in the midst of a chaotic explosion where each manufacturer’s scientific background, attention to detail, or intentions aren’t clear. In some cases, even users who declare Delta-8 products unsafe are sometimes pushing products of their own at the same time.

Ryan Bellone, a commercial director for KCA Labs, a hemp and cannabis testing lab in Kentucky says there are probably people who are able to pull off the reactions quickly. But it’s hard to know for sure who they actually are.

“I think the issue is the lack of oversight of the actual manufacturers of the material,” Bellone tells Inverse. “I'm sure there are plenty of processors that are doing it as safely as they can fathom.”

Bellone recently started a GoFundMe page dedicated to random testing of Delta-8 products. After posting on both Reddit and Future4200, he raised about $1,000 to buy a random sampling of Delta-8 products in the Kentucky area and test them in the lab for “mystery peaks” and impurities.

“Instead of kind of going on a witch hunt and identifying products that might be unsafe, we've chosen to do it by blinding the products,” he says. “We are trying to gather some aggregate information that we can report to the people funding and the people following the project.”

But without guidance from any regulatory body, he adds, “I think there’s definitely some concern.”

Ultimately, Powers is confident the people who lack the chops to run safe chemical conversions will reveal their own ignorance and be weeded out by the forum’s experts. In the meantime, he says consumers have to take some responsibility for their own safety.

“You probably should not be going to the gas station and buying some random Delta-8,” Powers says. “You also probably shouldn’t be buying boner pills or any of the other shit that they sell right up there at the front. You’ve got to be aware of what you’re buying.”