Drug-induced “adventures” are almost as old as the human species, though both the chemicals involved and the context in which they’re taken have varied considerably in different times and places.
But if you’ve visited one of Western North Carolina’s many hemp dispensaries lately, there’s a good chance you’ve seen products featuring a substance known as delta-8. The naturally occurring chemical compound is derived from the cannabis plant. Another cannabis product — cannabidiol, or CBD — is legal in North Carolina and also sold in dispensaries. Products containing delta-8-tetrahydrocannabinol, an alternate form of THC, are in somewhat of a legal gray area, however, as the compound is more psychoactive than CBD. Many users say the effects are closer to those induced by delta-9 THC, the component in marijuana that’s responsible for its characteristic high.
While CBD dispensaries in the region say these products are increasingly popular with consumers, a broader debate concerning delta-8’s legality and safety is looming, both locally and nationwide. The safety concerns are linked to the lack of both clinical data on the isolated compound (as opposed to the whole plant) and manufacturing safeguards in an unregulated market.
Delta-8’s name refers to the double bond between the eighth and ninth carbon atoms of its molecular structure. Delta-9, the better-known form of THC, has a double bond between its ninth and tenth carbon atoms. Because of the two compounds’ similar structure and effects, delta-8 is sometimes referred to as “marijuana lite” or even “diet weed.” Many delta-8 users report feelings of euphoria or relaxation, and some say it provides relief from pain, nausea and assorted mental health issues. As with other THC products, however, some consumers report experiencing anxiety, paranoia, drowsiness and/or other negative effects.
On a recent visit to Asheville, nationally known comedian and writer Emily Winter says she tried delta-8 after hearing about it.
“When I asked people around Asheville about delta-8, they told me it’s closer to CBD than weed. I don’t really feel much when I take CBD, but I wanted to try the local legal drug, so I bought some delta-8 and ate a lot of it.” Winter says she and her husband first consumed about 30 milligrams — “a much higher dosage than we should have.” As a result, she explains, they “had to wait hours to come down.
“It was the same as the negative effects of too much weed: feeling both nervous and anxious but also slow and heavy, and being slow to understand other people. When I was waiting for it to subside I was shopping with friends in downtown Asheville, then eating outside at a restaurant. My husband kept his sunglasses on, even though it wasn’t sunny, because he felt so high he didn’t want anyone to look into his eyes.”
Undeterred, however, Winter’s adventurous spirit led her to try again. “Days after that first mishap, I took much smaller dosages and found it pleasant and relaxing,” she reports.
Her husband, the Brooklyn-based comedian and actor Chris Calogero, says he’s tried both CBD and delta-9 edibles in the past and was expecting an “elevated CBD experience” with delta-8. Instead, Calogero says he and Winter got “extremely, extremely high” and felt “woozy. I think it was maybe because I wasn’t expecting it, but I was definitely flying.”
Business is booming
Several Asheville-area residents whom Mountain Xpress reached out to said that while they enjoy delta-8 products and find them a great relaxation aid, they declined to go on the record about their use due to the stigma that surrounds cannabinoid products in many professional settings.
Nonetheless, the appearance of delta-8 products has sparked a “new boom” in the hemp market, says Jason Ward, co-founder of the Black Mountain-based Trinity Pharms Hemp Co. The business, he says, was created with one goal: to “vastly change the quality of life, for all people in our pathways, for the better.” Its products are intended to provide relief and “achieve a state of homeostasis within the body” in the most natural ways.
The company doesn’t manufacture its own delta-8 products, but Ward says it works directly with producers to offer the highest-quality products on the market. “That’s what separates us in this industry: We deal directly with manufacturing laboratories. We do not deal with middleman- or catalog-ordered products” — practices that, he maintains, “give products a bad name because of skimping on integrity, ingredients and equipment. That’s not who we are or what we represent.
“We are advocates for full legalization of all things cannabis, so for us, jumping in the delta-8 market and providing quality products to our customers was a no-brainer,” continues Ward. “It’s brought a brand-new clientele to our business. This plant offers something for everyone, in all walks of life. The surge in sales speaks for itself. People buy the products because it makes their quality of life better.”
Faith Wright, marketing coordinator for the locally based Franny’s Farmacy, says the stores chose to sell those products because of “the amazing discoveries of what this cannabinoid can offer, from aiding anxiety to sleep.” Wright says Franny’s Farmacy offers a wide variety of products to serve a more diverse clientele and provide relief for many different ailments. “There have been some important studies impacting our decision to not only manufacture our own products but distribute and sell them in our retail stores as well,” she says.
Adventures in law enforcement
Delta-8 products may be selling well now, but it’s unclear how long they’ll retain their current legal status. Paul R. Adams III, industrial hemp program manager at the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, says that while the federal 2018 Agriculture Improvement Act legalized hemp products containing up to 0.3% delta-9 THC, the legality of delta-8 is not as well defined. In 2020, he notes, the Drug Enforcement Administration declared that it would treat delta-8 THC, or any THC products that are “manufactured/synthesized/converted or otherwise created through synthetic methods,” as illegal. “It would be at the discretion of law enforcement to enforce that law. However, should they decide to pursue legal action against manufacturers or sellers of delta-8, they could do so,” he says.
Mountain Xpress reached out to several public health and law enforcement agencies in the region, but few were willing to comment on the use of delta-8. Because the products are relatively new, some public agencies said they haven’t yet had enough experience with them to offer an opinion. Others said that they can’t comment until the compound’s legal status is clarified. As of this writing, delta-8 is currently banned or restricted in 17 states, and several more are considering such actions.
“Given that the legality of delta-8 THC is in a bit of a gray area, the Asheville Police Department won’t be able to make any comments until a legislative body (Congress or state legislators) or the court system addresses it,” said APD spokesperson Christina Hallingse. And Aaron Sarver, spokesperson for the Buncombe County Sheriff’s Office, said he’s “not aware of any criminal statutes regarding the public use of CBD products” and therefore has no comment. None of the public health agencies contacted by Xpress reported having had any issues with residents using delta-8.
For her part, Wright of Franny’s Farmacy believes that banning delta-8 “would be unfortunate, especially being a cannabinoid that’s naturally derived from the hemp plant. To take away an alternative to delta-9 THC that is more subtle, less captivating and can be very aiding to those with serious pain is illogical,” she maintains.
Likewise, Ward says Trinity Pharms is actively working to keep delta-8 products legal. “Of course we are always keeping an eye on legislation and would hate to see it go, but our job is to follow the laws and be compliant.” In the meantime, however, “We’ll advocate, educate, work with our attorney and continue to fight for what’s right.”
No fault, no foul
Meanwhile, one area resident who was willing to speak on the record echoes other users’ reported experiences, both positive and negative.
Michelle Aldaine, a hair colorist and stylist at Asheville’s Rain or Shine Salon, says, “I’ve been taking it mostly in the evenings to sleep. I already take sleeping medications, but they don’t help me fall asleep. My delta-8 blend helps me turn off my brain and puts me in [the right] mood.”
Still, she continues, delta-8 does have a downside. “The only negative is that it’s easy for me to accidentally take too much and get really high. It wasn’t exactly a paranoid experience, but I felt like I couldn’t accomplish anything: I just had to lay on the couch.”
And while Aldaine says she’d recommend delta-8 to friends who have trouble sleeping, that’s partly because it’s one adventure that plays out strictly within the bounds of the law. “I think it’s a good alternative. I like it because it’s legal here. … I prefer being able to go into a store and buy it and know that nobody has any cause to give me any grief over it.”