Designer Cannabinoids Delta-8, Delta-10, and THC-O: Are They Safe?
Editor’s note: This article has been updated from a previous version in which ‘modified cannabinoids’ were mistakenly referred to as synthetic cannabinoids. The two are not to be confused, as synthetic cannabinoids include substances such as K2 and ‘spice,’ and have been associated with unpredictable and even life-threatening side effects.
First, it was Delta-8. Then came Delta-10. Now, THC-O is getting all the attention. Designer cannabinoids are all the rage but remain untested and unregulated.
Kim Stuck, CEO of Allay Consulting LLC and one of the first cannabis regulators in the U.S., says the influx of modified cannabinoids is a worrying trend. These compounds are so new there is little to no scientific research on their benefits, effects, or safety profiles. As a result, regulators don’t know what to do with them, and they often fly entirely under the radar.
Stuck and her team at Allay Consulting help producers become compliant and prepare for a future of Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulation. In her work, she has witnessed the rise of these new designer cannabinoids and feels that caution is warranted. She helps us unpack the realities of designer cannabinoids and offers a few helpful tips should you want to explore them.
An Explainer on Delta-8, Delta-10, and THC-O
Researchers have discovered more than 100 naturally occurring cannabinoids in the cannabis plant. Some of the most familiar are tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD), but many more secondary cannabinoids make up the complete profile for each plant and product.
Beyond those cannabinoids produced by Cannabis sativa L, it’s also possible to synthesize cannabinoids through the chemical conversion of natural cannabinoids like CBD and THC. It’s through this chemical conversion that designer cannabinoids are making it to market today.
- Delta-8 (∆-8-THC, Delta-8-THC or delta-8-tetrahydrocannabinol)
A natural cannabinoid but one that typically exists only in minuscule quantities, almost all Delta-8 available today comes from a lab, produced by converting CBD or THC using a solvent.
Although similar in many ways to Delta-9, Delta-8 differs in the sequence of the molecular double bond. Delta-9 is double-bonded on the 9th carbon, while Delta-8 is on the 8th.
Some research suggests Delta-8 may offer certain medicinal benefits, but this work is in the very preliminary stages. For the recreational user, it is roughly 30 percent less intoxicating than its cousin, Delta-9.
In Canada, you’ll find Delta-9 most often sold via black market online bud shops in vapes, edibles, and distillate syringes. Because cannabis and associated cannabinoids are legal for adult use in Canada, Delta-8 is also legal.
- Delta-10 (∆-10-THC, Delta-10-THC or delta-10-tetrahydrocannabinol)
A newly popularized riff off of the Delta-8 trend, Delta-10 doesn’t occur naturally. It is an entirely modified cannabinoid produced through a solvent conversion of CBD.
Although Delta-10 is blowing up in the U.S., you’re much less likely to find it sold legally—or even illegally—in Canada. User reports on Reddit indicate that the Delta-10 experience is energetic and heady, with “sativa qualities.”
- THC-O (THC-O-Acetate, or ATHC)
THC-O is the newest designer cannabinoid hitting the market, and one said to be three times as potent as Delta-9. According to Stuck, this cannabinoid is created through a multi-step conversion of CBD into Delta-8 and then into THC-O.
Although THC-O is largely unheard of in Canada and still extremely new even in the U.S., Stuck was shocked to see this cannabinoid widely sold at a recent conference. As she detailed, “It baffled me, simply because in North Carolina THC-[containing] cannabis is not legal there. But yet, on the CBD side, the hemp side, people are making THC-O.”
There is no peer-reviewed information available for this cannabinoid, but it’s reportedly much stronger than the Delta-9. One Reddit user suggested their 30-milligram THC-O gummy was comparable to a 60- to 70-milligram Delta-9 edible.
Are Designer Cannabinoids Safe?
Legalization in Canada and across the U.S. indicates that cannabis consumption in a regulated market is safe. Beyond the acute and immediate experiences (the high) stemming from Delta-9 consumption, researchers have found few long-term side effects.
As one publication explained, “Most studies have found limited evidence of persistent neuropsychological deficits among cannabis users, particularly for those who initiated cannabis use as adults.”
But what about cannabinoids like THC-O, which is supposedly three times stronger than regular Delta-9?
At the time of writing, there were no peer-reviewed resources available through PubMed or Google Scholar on the subject of THC-O (or THC-O-Acetate). There were also no safety and toxicology reviews for Delta-8 or Delta-10.
This means there is minimal information available for these newly popular designer cannabinoids. For example, are they safe for acute use? What about long-term use? We just don’t know.
Lack of Regulation a Serious Concern
A major concern about these human-made cannabinoids is the lack of regulation surrounding them. In many jurisdictions, these modified cannabinoids fall into the same category as hemp products.
Although they technically come from hemp-derived CBD, these are intoxicating and inebriating cannabinoids with no significant research behind them. CBD, on the other hand, is non-intoxicating and has gone through ongoing rounds of research.
Delta-8, Delta-10, and THC-O fall into legal limbo. As Stuck explains, regulators don’t know what to do with them.
“These modified cannabinoids are coming out so quickly that the regulators can’t even keep up with them,” Stuck says.
Because these designer cannabinoids fall into a CBD categorization, they may be legally sold at convenience stores, farmers’ markets, and other unlicensed retailers, making these intoxicating products accessible to children and adolescents. Stuck is worried that “there just isn’t enough data out there to know what could happen to a kid if they got ahold of it.”
In Canada, because of the way cannabis (and hemp-derived CBD) is regulated, any cannabis derivatives like Delta-8 would fall under legislation requiring licensing, testing, and strict production standards.
However, these designer cannabinoid products exist almost exclusively on the black market in Canada. That means no testing for pesticides, residual solvents, potency, or contamination.
Curious About Delta-8, Delta-10, and THC-O? Here’s What You Need to Know
Although scientists may have established the protocol to synthesize Delta-8 decades ago, it’s essentially a brand new cannabinoid for consumers. Delta-10 and THC-O are even newer, only available over the last year or so. And, as Stuck predicts, “Every month, there is going to be a new cannabinoid that’s going to be a hot topic.”
As a curious consumer wanting to explore these various new cannabinoid creations, how do you play it safe?
Stuck’s number one rule is “looking for that GMP Certification, and then actually looking them up.” GMP, or Good Manufacturing Practice, is an internationally established protocol “for ensuring that products are consistently produced and controlled according to quality standards.”
In a world with no regulation, it’s as close as a company can get to regulating production and ensuring a high-quality standard. At the very least, GMP certification “is designed to minimize the risks involved in any pharmaceutical production that cannot be eliminated through testing the final product.”
Seeking GMP certification is helpful for the brands available in the United States, but what can Canadians do? Try looking up the manufacturer through the Cannabis LP Database. If a producer can meet the strict rules required for GMP or Canadian LP designation, it presumably is doing its very best to ensure its products are safe.
Designer Cannabinoids Are Here to Stay
With the growing demand for all things cannabis, novel-designer cannabinoids will continue to appear on the market. Delta-8, Delta-10, and THC-O are not the last of the exciting cannabinoid creations we’ll see in vapes, edibles, and distillates. As technicians continue to tinker, we will likely see more of them penetrating the market over the next few years.
It remains to be seen what sort of attention designer cannabinoids receive from the Canadian government. Still, Stuck is pushing for all producers to implement safety and quality standards, like GMP certification.
She wasn’t wrong when she said, “We are all in this together,” because “if someone gets sick, or someone dies (god forbid), it is not just going to hurt that company, it’ll hurt the industry as a whole.”
If you choose to dabble with designer cannabinoids, stick with licensed producers who test their products, follow government-mandated production standards, and can be held accountable. At the very least, not only will it keep you as safe as possible, but it will help keep the industry safe as well.
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