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Delta 8 THC vs. Delta 9 THC: And The Question "Is Delta 8 Safe?"

Updated: Feb 19

Today, we’re going to discuss two forms of THC, specifically Delta 8 THC vs. Delta 9 THC, and the question, "Is Delta 8 safe?". Both forms have gained much attention in recent years through popularity and scrutiny. Just like many other cannabinoids, they are closely related to each other: they both have the same atoms in nearly the same layout and orientation. The only difference is the double bond placement (Fig.1) in the third (or first, depending on how you look at it) ring structure. Check it out below!

molecular structure of Delta 8 and Delta 9 THC

(Fig.1 - Comparison of the molecular structure of Delta 8 THC vs. Delta 9 THC)

Before diving in, you should know this will sometimes get really scientific. Science is the basis of everything we do, as it should be for anyone working with Cannabis; without it, this subject is subject to hearsay. We’re also going to discuss some of the arguments regarding safety, the recent scrutiny, and actual research. We'll find the answer to the question, "Is Delta 8 safe?" - there’s more out there than many people realize.

We’ve discussed the primary pathway of how cannabinoids are made in previous blog posts, but here's a refresher:

  • Hexanoyl-CoA is broken down through hydrolysis, then enzymatically changed within the trichomes of Cannabis sativa to Olivetolic Acid.

  • Combining Geranyl Diphosphate with Olivetolic Acid and using Aromatic Prenyltransferase (an enzyme) creates Cannabigerolic acid, the “mother of all cannabinoids”.

  • From there, different enzymes specific to the creation of CBDa, THCa, and CBCa create those three cannabinoids specifically. Other enzymes that may relate to other minor cannabinoids are also thought to exist. However, this outline of production for cannabinoids that Cannabis very efficiently enacts within the trichomes will be our baseline of discussion.

THCa and CBDa are closely related; they have the same molecular weight, meaning they contain the same number and types of atoms, just arranged differently. Remember that Delta 8 THC & Delta 9 THC are even more closely related, as stated and seen above (Fig.1). Before we get down to the nitty-gritty, let’s compare the two.

Is Delta 8 Safe?: Delta 8 THC vs. Delta 9 THC

Anyone who has tried the major forms of THC (Δ⁸-THC & Δ⁹-THC) will more than likely know about the similarities and critical minor differences. Both are psychoactive and have been shown in studies to be appetite stimulants, effective for pain and inflammation, and powerful anti-emetics. Many assume these comparisons don’t go beyond the generalities of colloquial experience. Still, many of these effects have been clinically studied and have a strong basis in science when you look at the structure of both, their relation to the CB1 receptor, and their breakdown products in other areas of the body, such as the liver.

Is Delta 8 safe?: The efficacy of Delta 8

The public commentary on the safety of Delta 8 THC recently discussed a study on pediatric cancer patients and the possible anti-nausea effect it could have, claiming it was ‘not enough’ research because only eight children were involved in the study. Clarification was never given for the study as it followed those children over (sadly) years of chemotherapy treatments and totaled over 480 data points, with Delta 8 THC being the only one with a 100% success rate at preventing vomiting following chemotherapy. The study compared Delta 8 THC vs. Delta 9 THC vs. Metoclopramide (an anti-nausea pharmaceutical). While Delta 9 THC was a close second in efficacy, the higher potency of Delta 9 THC led to many more complications beyond preventing nausea and vomiting.

Clinical studies have also been done comparing Delta 8 THC vs. Delta 9 THC by oral and intravenous administration and the effects seen afterward, a study on their effect and comparison on human cells in culture, and another regarding the metabolism of both, to name a few. Granted, we would love to see just as many published and peer-reviewed studies done on Δ⁸-THC for as many numerous specific topics as there have been for Δ⁹-THC in the last 10-15 years, but the general knowledge that is backed by science gives us enough information to make some direct inferences on the safety and efficacy of both, as well as supported facts on Δ⁸-THC alone. Regarding metabolism, for example, the end products produced (11-hydroxy-THC and later 11-nor-Δ-hydroxy-THC / THC-Acetate) are the same.

Regarding Delta 8 THC on the market, there absolutely needs to be a concern for the safety of the composition of consumer products, but... the safety of products for our customers or any others regarding Delta 8 THC vs. Delta 9 THC is no different than any other cannabis product. This safety all relates to the transparency of certificates of analysis (you can find these on our website) for finished and raw products, as well as the care taken in all process steps: extraction, purification, isolation, and so on. Adherence to local, state, and federal guidelines is also important. When asking, "Is Delta 8 safe?" we need to know what we are talking about the molecule itself or the finished product.

Is Delta 8 Safe? The process vs the product

This is where the question "Is Delta 8 safe?" originates. Let's look at why the process gets so much scrutiny. The approach to converting CBD to Δ⁸-THC is the same as CBN: the “degradation” pathway. After THCa is produced in the plant, it is subject to all sorts of stresses. Heat, oxidative elements, and light are all-natural (yet harmful) stresses the plant comes into contact with that, in turn, can change Δ⁹-THCa into both Δ⁸-THC(a) and CBN(a) (Cannabinol) purposefully as the plant protects itself. This is the basis of how Δ⁸-THC is created and found in cannabis, as well as CBN (fig.2). There is no enzymatic pathway to make it as there is with CBG(a)/CBD(a)/THC(a)/CBC(a). So, how does this relate to the safety of properly treated Δ⁸-THC?

Simply put, Δ⁸-THC is more stable than Δ⁹-THC, so when Δ⁹-THC is subjected to any of those harmful stresses mentioned above, the energy from those is diverted into ‘moving’ the double bond from the ninth-to-tenth carbon position to the eight-to-ninth carbon position. The stability stems from moving available hydrogen atoms from an accessible place on the ‘side’ of THC to a more internal placement. Suppose the stress is extraordinarily harsh or harmful enough when Δ⁹-THC is subjected to it. In that case, the exposed hydrogen atoms on the outermost side of the third cyclical structure will leave, transforming it into CBN. These changes in cannabinoids are all pathways the plant has available to redirect harmful stresses & energy away from its genetic makeup. This is similar to how melanin in our skin aptly absorbs UV radiation from the sun, protecting genetic information in our cells from mutations such as those that lead to skin cancer.

Molecular structure of THC and CBN

(Fig.2 - The THC shown is Δ⁹-THC. As you can see in this example, when compared to the CBN molecule, two sets of hydrogen have been removed, leaving a fully aromatic third cyclical structure changing Δ⁹-THC into Cannabinol. Cannabinol does not have the same molecular weight as THC for this reason.)

Is Delta 8 Safe If CBN Is?

For those of us who have been paying attention to the scrutiny of the people asking, "Is Delta 8 safe?" it is surprising that CBN is not getting the same attention. The stresses required to obtain CBN in any quantifiable way are much more intense and require more care, expertise, and cleanup. Expertise is the limiting factor in the market and a primary reason why Δ⁸-THC has had the label “be-warned” put on it. For example, let's look at the change that occurs when cannabinoids are decarboxylated (Fig.3). It is correct to say the change from an acidic form to a decarboxylated form is more of a change molecularly than Δ⁹-THC changing to Δ⁸-THC is, or for that matter, CBD to Δ⁹-THC. Decarboxylation from heat energy is a relatively straightforward and safe process that happens both on a laboratory scale and a personal scale when Cannabis flower is ignited for inhalation. However, our decarboxylation process removes the CO2 and combustibles from reaching the customer.

Decarboxylation reaction

(Fig.3 - The stress of high heat (one way to decarboxylate) causes CO2 to leave CBDa, leaving us with CBD, the non-acidic and ‘activated’ form of the cannabinoid)

Is Delta 8 Safe?: If Delta 9 is safe, Is Delta 8 Safe?

Science also explains why Δ⁸-THC has been shown to be less potent than Δ⁹-THC generally but still acts directly on the CB1 receptor in the same way and causes similar results. The most apparent reason is the structure (Fig.1). The CB1 and CB2 (any receptors, for that matter) work on a “lock & key” basis. If the key fits, the door opens, and if it doesn’t, the door does not - it’s that simple. Delta 8 THC, Delta 9 THC, and CBN all fit into the CB1 receptor because of their similarities, and in turn, the effects are different because of their minor structural differences. This is where the importance of the double bond placement comes into play in our discussion.

The CB1 receptor (Fig.4) comprises 7 main protein helices and a few protein loops and makes up different polar and nonpolar pockets. These pockets, the amino acid residues they relate to in the surrounding helices and loops, and the pockets' shape differentiate CB1 from CB2 receptors, making it selective for specific cannabinoids. Since the only difference is the placement of the double bond when comparing Delta 8 THC vs. Delta 9 THC, it stands to reason that the difference in effect is related to this. This is where science comes out to shine. On Helix Ⅱ, there is a residue called F174. What this residue is isn’t as important as what it does, and that is it stabilizes THC within the pockets of the CB1 receptor. When THC binds within the CB1 receptor and subsequently causes a conformational change in the shape of CB1, it, in turn, blocks GABA from affecting inhibitory neurons, causing dopamine to be released. This, in part, plays a role in the quintessential “high” related to THC.

CB1 receptor

(Fig.4 - The CB1 Receptor shown in a 3D rendered model to outline the structure)

That was a LOT to take in, but the key takeaway is this: the double bond placement in regards to Δ⁹-THC stabilizes it within the CB1 receptor more strongly and for longer than when Δ⁸-THC binds to CB1. The reason for this is how far away the double bond is in relation to the F174 residue and what type of bond it is in both cases. The same goes when playing with magnets, for example - the farther away, the weaker the pull is. All the other stabilizing and binding points within the helices of CB1 and the different points on THC that bind to them are the same. Many of the other bonds produced between THC and CB1 are much stronger than the type between F174 and the double bond in question, so by moving that bond farther away from that stabilizing residue, Δ⁸-THC binds for less time and is, in turn ‘kicked out’ of the CB1 receptor faster. It’s that simple. In the future, there is, of course, going to be more research into Δ⁸-THC. We look forward to that, but from all that has been learned not only from Δ⁹-THC and CBD (including other cannabinoids such as CBN) and their actions within our bodies, there is nothing that can’t be explained at least to a reasonable point regarding Δ⁸-THC.

Safety Profile: Why is Delta 8 Safe?

Lastly, this comes down to safety. What can be explained about how Δ⁸-THC is formed at a laboratory level? Is Delta 8 safe to ingest? How do I know they don’t contain products I shouldn’t ingest? We’ve received many questions from other extractors and companies looking to uncover our methods and inquiries from customers looking for an explanation of where our Δ⁸-THC comes from. While our methods are proprietary, and I won’t share them today, everything from Blackhouse Botanicals starts as hemp biomass and is treated with care at every step. Products are tested at every step of our process for our customers' and employees' safety. Heavy metals, residual solvents, pesticides, toxins, and potency are all tested and meet state and federal requirements. Most importantly, our methods are based on scientific research, including our Δ⁸-THC.

Is Delta 8 Safe?: The History And Research.

Scientists have been aware of Δ⁸-THC since 1941. It has been, at minimum, a side interest and tagalong of Cannabis research since 1964 when Raphael Mechoulam synthesized it successfully from olivetolic acid along with CBD and Δ⁹-THC. The first study published where Δ⁸-THC was a significant star was in 1975, over 40 years ago! Although Δ⁹-THC has been the focus of CB1 cannabinoid studies for many years, due to its extreme similarities with Δ⁸-THC, much of that research is shown to be the same and relevant for both delta variants. There is published research on the specificity of different types of stresses on different cannabinoids, what the result from those stresses are and the purity, and is what we based our R&D on (not to mention thousands of dollars in testing and laboratory equipment) before we ever put out a product that contained Δ⁸-THC. These pathways are well known, and the information regarding specific products is out. Ring closure and isomerization have been used in almost every industry (including heavily in pharmaceuticals). They are the basis of aldose-ketose carbohydrate chemistry that occurs in every person when we consume glucose.

Is Delta 8 Safe To Inhale?

An excellent example of safety in the market is most of the cannabinoid-containing (usually CBD and Delta 9) vape cartridges. These are found in medical and recreational markets and are generally made with 85-90% distillate oil (with added terpenes), yet they are approved for use and sale to the public after proper testing. The other 10-15% of that distillate oil is non-cannabinoid products of distillation and can’t be accounted for by any standardized test other than checking for contaminants such as metals and pesticides. It’s the reason that a 1 gram (1000mg) cartridge only has 750-850mg total cannabinoid content on average. So if these unknowns are acceptable in a Delta 9 cartridge why is there so much concern whether Delta 8 is safe? This is also why we put up a blog post about reading a certificate of analysis - it’s essential to know what’s in your products and why the amounts are what they are.

There have been claims of people creating Delta 8 THC using chemicals like battery acid and bleach; these are not something that would make any reputable company (including us) any amount of consumer-worthy cannabinoids of any kind, and certainly aren’t in anything except the mop-bucket and the cars we drive to work. Instead, you’ll find 5 degrees, 3 minors, 25+ years of chemistry and botany experience, and a family-owned and operated small business filled only with employees who respect our customers and cannabis in all its forms.

Not sure if Delta 8 or Delta 9 is right for you? Click Here to take our quiz and get our recommendation!


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