Teens are using an unregulated form of THC. Here’s what we know

A legal loophole makes delta-8 easily accessible for high schoolers

Colorful bags of delta-8 products are hung in a story display. The products' packaging includes knock offs of Doritos, Life Savers, Ruffles and Oreos.

Delta-8 products (some shown) are often packaged to resemble popular food and candy brands. “A lot of states even allow you to use cartoons [in packaging],” says addiction researcher Jessica Kruger. “That is obviously for kids.”

Gene Johnson/AP Photo

Walk into a gas station in the United States, and you may see more than just boxes of cigarettes lining the back wall. Colorful containers containing delta-8, a form of the substance THC, are sold in gas stations and shops across the country, and teens are buying them.

A recent survey of more than 2,000 U.S. high school seniors found that more than 11 percent of them had used delta-8 in the past year, researchers report March 12 in JAMA. This is the first year the Monitoring the Future study, one of the leading nationally representative surveys of drug use trends among adolescents in the United States, looked at delta-8 use. Because more than 1 in 10 senior students said they used the drug, the survey team plans to monitor delta-8 use every year going forward.

“We don’t really want to see any kids being exposed to cannabis, because it potentially increases their risk for developmental harms … and some psychiatric reactions” such as suicidal thoughts, says Alyssa Harlow, a researcher on the survey and an epidemiologist at the University of Southern California Keck School of Medicine in Los Angeles.

Despite its prevalence, especially in the South and the Midwest, delta-8 is still new to consumers and research. Science News talked with Harlow and addiction researcher Jessica Kruger of the University of Buffalo in New York to help explain the delta-8 craze and its effects on kids.

What is delta-8-THC?

Cannabis plants contain over 100 compounds known as cannabinoids. Delta-8 is one of them. The most well-known is delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol, or delta-9-THC.

Delta-9 is the primary molecule responsible for getting people high when they consume marijuana. That’s because the human brain has cannabinoid receptors that help regulate appetite, mood, memory and other physiological roles. These receptors aren’t designed to interact with cannabis plants; they’re meant to interact with endocannabinoids, which are naturally produced in our bodies. But cannabinoids from cannabis plants can still bind to these receptors and commandeer their normally functioning system.

The chemical structure of molecules of delta-9- and delta-8-THC are very similar. The only difference is the location of a double bond between carbon atoms. Because of this change, delta-8 doesn’t bind as easily to cannabinoid receptors in our brain, making it somewhat less potent than delta-9. But delta-8 does still bind to those receptors, it is still THC, and it still has psychoactive effects.

Unlike delta-9, delta-8 is found only in small amounts in cannabis plants, so it’s usually chemically synthesized from other cannabinoids like CBD. “They’re putting different chemicals in [other cannabinoids] to create [delta-8] from a naturally occurring substance,” Kruger says. “It often contains harmful additives and byproducts, much of which is unknown.”

Why is delta-8 not regulated by the government?

In 2018, the Farm Bill became federal law. It took hemp products, which come from the same plant as marijuana, off the federal controlled substances list. Hemp became legal so long as each hemp product contained less than 0.3 percent THC based on dry weight. But the bill’s language specified 0.3 percent delta-9-THC, not all THC, leaving a loophole for production and unregulated sale of delta-8 products.

“People tend not to smoke delta-8,” Kruger says, even though they can. “People describe it as feeling very harsh on their lungs. We tend to see this in tinctures and edibles. But I’m starting to see more [vape] cartridges too.”

Why does delta-8 appeal to teens?

Because of the legal loophole in the Farm Bill, there’s very little regulation of delta-8. “There’s no [federal] minimum purchasing age for delta-8 and other hemp-derived THC products,” Harlow says. “And they’re being sold in stores that are frequented by youth … often without age verification.”

These accessible places include gas stations and online retailers. “You go to a gas station,” Kruger says, “and the person selling it doesn’t really know what it is … and it’s right on the counter. There’s nothing stopping adolescents.”

Beyond access, the packaging and social media marketing of delta-8 products target teens. “Because there’s no regulation,” Harlow says, “you’ll see delta-8 products that are … emulating very well-known candy and food products.”

Or, as Kruger notes: “The cannabis industry is definitely taking some pages out of the tobacco playbook.”

What effects does delta-8 have?

In her own research, Kruger found that delta-8 tends to be “a nicer, younger sibling of delta-9,” she says. “People tend to say that it’s not as strong, and that they don’t get as much anxiety from it, and they also have a little bit more clear-headedness as they’re using it.” But, she says, it’s important to recognize that while these might be trends, these feelings aren’t absolute guarantees.

Side effects include vomiting, hallucinations, loss of consciousness and anxiety, according to adverse effects reports made to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Why are public health officials worried about delta-8?

THC, including delta-8, can be dangerous for anyone, but especially kids. It’s associated with depression, thoughts of suicide and schizophrenia. One study also found kids who used THC experienced a faster than normal thinning of the prefrontal cortex, which is important for problem solving and emotional regulation (SN: 1/5/2024).

All THC can increase a kid’s risk for developmental harms, but delta-8 also poses unique risks when compared with regular marijuana, Harlow says. Because only a few states have enacted legislation for delta-8, it’s usually not a requirement to clearly label that the products contain THC or the levels of it, she says. “So there’s the concern that young people … could be taking these products thinking, ‘Oh, this is a hemp product,’ and just not knowing that there’s THC in it.”

Unclear labeling and imprecise dosage instructions can lead to dangerous amounts of THC in the body. And with the possible presence of contaminants from chemical synthesis, delta-8 products may contain more than meets the eye. “I really worry about these contaminants,” Kruger says. “I worry that they’re actually getting … something different. And I worry about the potency.”

Reports of negative reactions to delta-8 have increased, too. In 2022, America’s Poison Centers, a group of 55 poison centers across the United States, managed over 3,000 cases of delta-8 use, an 82 percent increase from the year before. These factors have led government agencies like the FDA to issue warnings about delta-8.

Given the survey results, what’s next?

To Harlow, this survey was a temperature check to see if delta-8 use in teens was something to pay attention to. Now her team knows it is, and she says they have unanswered questions they plan to address in future surveys: “What type of products are teens using? Where are they purchasing them? Are they getting them online? Are they getting them from friends? Are they getting them from stores that are not checking IDs?”

Harlow and her team’s survey shows preliminary evidence that delta-8 use is lower in states that have adopted legislation for the cannabinoid, but they can’t definitively say that legislation is why use is lower in these areas.

Legalization of delta-9, however, seems to curtail delta-8 use, Kruger says. “As there becomes a more regulated market for cannabis products, people tend to move to that more regulated market.”

In areas like the South, where Harlow’s team found heightened delta-8 use, Kruger worries about the future of THC products. “I don’t think some of these states will maybe ever legalize until there’s federal [legislation], or maybe not even then,” she says. “I really worry about the rise of these alternative cannabinoids. Because a lot of them are very untested, very unregulated, very unsteady.”

Helen Bradshaw is a spring 2024 science writing intern at Science News. She graduated from Northwestern University with a bachelor’s degree in journalism with a focus on environmental policy and culture.

More Stories from Science News on Health & Medicine