In recent months, Delta-8 THC, a cannabinoid similar to the psychoactive agent Delta-9 THC that powers marijuana sales, has driven a fast-growing grey market across the United States. But cannabis laboratory scientists warn that while regulators and legislators are in a stir about the Delta-8 molecule, many other unidentified cannabinoid molecules exist with unknown medicinal or psychoactive properties.
“There are hundreds of cannabinoids that have been uncovered. Many of them are naturally occurring on the plant. When we see the chromatography off the raw plant material, we find peaks that we can’t identify currently,” said Dave Egerton, laboratory director for Infinite Chemical in Jackson, Michigan.
Delta-9 Tetrahydrocannabinol is a cannabinoid found in large, naturally occurring amounts in marijuana plants and is the key ingredient that spurs cannabis sales. Delta-8, an isomer of Delta-9, or a molecule with the same number of atoms of each element but with a different atomic arrangement, is also naturally occurring in marijuana plants, but generally in trace amounts. To obtain significant amounts of Delta-8, cultivators need to distill the plant, and refine the resulting distillate, emphasizing for Delta-8 over Delta-9.
“The first time I came across Delta-8 was six or seven years ago. It was an unintentional byproduct of a distillation that had gone awry,” said Egerton. “They had done a raw extract of cannabis. When they performed distillation, the heat and pressure was off a little bit and they unintentionally created Delta-8 instead.”
Laboratory technicians use chromatography, a process that runs tested gases through delicate machinery, to identify the molecules present in a fluid or gas. The results are presented in a wave-form graphic, and technicians analyse the peaks to identify various chemical elements present. Older processes represent the results in a chromatic range of colors, thus the name, “chromatography”.
Federal and state controlled substance laws are written to cover specific molecules, since sometimes an isomer of a controlled substance can have no chemical impact on humans.
“It’s very hard, if you’re trying to write a statute that covers derivatives and what comes out of the cannabis plant itself. Someone might take something out and make something that is chemically related, but not directly from the plant,” said Michele Glinn, chief science officer of Viridis Labs, and a former toxicology unit director for the Michigan State Police.
Delta-8 is not the only cannabinoid under scrutiny, North Dakota and Alabama legislators are moving bills to ban Delta-10, as well. Across the country, hemp growers are fighting the efforts, since hemp – a plant identical to marijuana but bred for low levels of Delta-9 – may have high levels of overlooked cannabinoids. Hemp growers are concerned that as more cannabinoids are banned, they won’t be able to breed plants fast enough to keep up with the law.
“There are over a hundred in a cannabis plant, and you may see others coming as the new thing. They’re not commonly tested for. Delta-4 and Delta-7, you may see them coming out in the future,” said Glinn.
Delta-8, Delta-10, and whatever other cannabinoids that may hit the grey market in the future are popular because they dodge state controlled substance laws. Still, scientists say very little is known about the various cannabinoids, how they affect the human body and mind, or even how to create a widely-accepted standard to identify levels of non-Delta-9 molecules in a plant.
“The reason Delta-8 is in the position it is in now, is because the product was there before the science. This product is out there, but there’s no set standard on how to analyze that and qualify Delta-10,” said Tim Cash, co-founder of Chicago-based Origo Labs. “There’s thoughts, and very little research around it. Yet, people are making it. I don’t know how they’re getting these test results, because there’s no standard on how to test for it.”
Scientists interviewed by Grown In say that producing Delta-8 and Delta-10 requires a processing facility. While creating such a lab would not be as simple as a mobile lab in an RV, like the fictional methamphetamine lab in “Breaking Bad”, most of the production materials are readily available.
“I’m not sure what the requirements are for forming Delta-8 from [hemp]. It would require a short path distillation process set up at a minimum,” said Infinite Chemical’s Egerton. “If you’re doing it the right way, with the safety precautions, that should be set up in a laboratory. But a lot of that equipment can be acquired pretty regularly. You can find rudiments of it on Amazon if you want to.”
And for now, because there aren’t widely available recipes for Delta-8, distilling it requires a technician with a significant chemistry understanding and processing skills.
“The challenging thing here is that Delta-8 is an organic molecule that is sensitive to heat and pressure manipulation. There are a lot of byproduct compounds that could be created. They could be cannabinoids, they could be other compounds as well,” said Egerton.
Lab scientists caution that those other chemical compounds, distributed in a non-regulated environment, could be dangerous. For instance, two years ago THC vaping cartridges sold through the underground market were cut with a Vitamin E additive to slow the breakdown of Delta-9 molecules and preserve “freshness”. While Vitamin E is harmless to humans in liquid form, heated up and inhaled, it can be lethal.
Orego’s Tim Cash warns consumers to make sure packaged cannabis products have an up-to-date certificate of authentication (COA) produced by a third-party lab, preferably dated in the past year. Many customers aren’t looking for that COA, or just accept an old one that’s years old, he says. When customers don’t look closely at COAs, there’s room for mischief.
“People take that initial COA. Nobody has accountability. We don’t know if labs have a handshake agreement to give [suppliers] the results they want, or they just aren’t looking at the results correctly. We’ve seen all that stuff happen,” said Cash.