Over the past few years, you may have seen headlines about a drug called delta-8. Google searches for the term grew by more than 850 percent in the United States between 2020 and 2021, particularly in states where recreational marijuana is illegal. According to one recent study, 16 percent of regular marijuana users also use delta-8.
Some claim it’s the next big thing in cannabis: a gentler and, perhaps more crucially, legal high that offers relaxation and pain relief without the anxiety or fuzzy-headedness of regular weed.
But recent warnings from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration say delta-8 is a potentially dangerous drug that’s resulted in thousands of accidental poisonings.
Is this a case of regulators being too cautious or of cannabis advocates getting too hyped? The answer depends on what’s actually in a product labeled delta-8.
Some early research supports the claim that delta-8 could cause a milder high than traditional marijuana. But because the drug is unregulated, the vast majority of delta-8 products on the market don’t resemble what’s tested in a lab and can be contaminated with other cannabinoids and heavy metals. As a result, many experts advise against its use.
What is delta-8?
Technically, delta-8 means delta-8-THC, as in the THC that’s the primary psychoactive ingredient in marijuana.
The most common form of THC in cannabis plants is delta-9-THC, which is almost identical to delta-8-THC in its chemical structure. The molecules’ similarity means that delta-8 and delta-9 act very similarly in the body. Most crucially, they both bind to the same receptors in the brain, particularly one called the cannabinoid type 1 (or CB1) receptor, which produces the high you experience when you smoke a joint or eat a weed gummy.
However, research suggests delta-8 has a slightly weaker attachment to the CB1 receptor than delta-9, which tempers its effect.
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