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Over the last two decades, public support for the federal legalization of cannabis has doubled due to the public embracing the plant as helpful rather than dangerous. But unfortunately, the unregulated market for products infused with hemp-derived psychoactive compounds (HDPCs), such as synthetic delta-8, delta-9, and delta-10 THC, threatens to damage the industry’s goodwill and positive perception.
A loophole in the 2018 Farm Bill has allowed companies to sell products containing these compounds with no regulation. Even more obscure forms—such as THC-O acetate, a compound boasting effects three times stronger than delta-9 and not naturally occurring on the plant —have been released to the broader unregulated market.
Given the current lack of oversight and research about the benefits of HDPCs, these products have the potential to unintentionally harm consumers, invite media scrutiny, and prompt lawmakers to enforce even stricter laws in an industry already constrained by cumbersome regulations.
HDPC products are now widely available in gas stations and smoke shops and are often viewed as a more accessible alternative to legal cannabis. Since HDPC companies are not subject to the same compliance policies as the regulated industry, many are taxed up to 25 percent less, which ultimately encourages more consumers to buy cheaper, untested cannabis products.
But HDPC companies must prioritize consumer safety by being more forthcoming about what is precisely in their products and the intended effects. Increased reports of HDPC-related safety incidents likely stem from mislabeled products and consumers ingesting more THC than intended. A September 2021 health alert published by the CDC found that some products containing delta-8 THC may only disclose the product’s delta-9 concentration rather than total THC content. This pervasive issue now applies to new hemp-derived cannabinoids, such as THC-O, which is three times more potent than THC but marketed as a “lighter alternative” to traditional cannabis products.
Currently, most products containing delta-8 THC are mislabeled as hemp, a substance that minors can purchase. These widespread practices have led to increased incidents of pediatric intoxication and hospitalization. In 2021, the FDA reported that 40 percent of adverse events involving delta-8 THC involved minors, and 18 percent required hospitalization. In response, more municipalities in states with legal cannabis have opted out of sales due to child safety concerns.
Adult consumers may also experience adverse effects by unknowingly ingesting harmful compounds in HDPC products. Most processes that convert CBD to delta-8 THC use strong acids that often remain in the final product. Last year, researchers examined 16 delta-8 THC products from eight states, and many samples contained illicit delta-9 THC. Examples like these are harmful to the health of patients and consumers and undermine the rigorous quality control and testing processes of regulated companies.
What’s at stake
The regulated cannabis industry has been able to rehabilitate its image with the help of media outlets framing cannabis legalization more as a medical matter than a criminal issue. With public support for legal cannabis at record levels, cannabis companies should not give the media new reasons to be wary about this increasingly mature and sophisticated industry.
As HDPCs have become more accessible, several mainstream media outlets have published cautionary reports on the dangers of these products. One outlet went as far as to describe delta-8 THC as the “other delta variant.” For everyday Americans who may not understand the difference between regulated THC and hemp-derived THC, alarming headlines like these may increase consumer skepticism or fear.
Negative media coverage around HDPCs may have also prompted lawmakers in 14 states to block the sale of delta-8, citing a lack of research into the compound’s psychoactive effects. If the cannabis business community doesn’t proactively address these issues, government entities may step in and place additional constraints on regulated companies that are already spending the majority of their operating costs on staying compliant.
The legal cannabis industry welcomes cannabinoid extraction and R&D innovations, but consumer safety must come first. HDPC brands that want to have lasting relationships with consumers and the wider industry should be as thorough about compliance as their regulated peers. This means making a conscious effort to improve consumer education and safety standards.
It benefits HDPC brands and the industry to implement rigorous testing and compliance procedures proactively. Consumers primarily turn to cannabis for its wellness and medical properties, which puts the onus on brands and manufacturers to produce high-quality, consistent, and effective products.
At a bare minimum, brands operating in states where HDPCs are legal should comply with local testing guidelines for mold, microbials, heavy metals, pesticides, solvents, and broader cannabinoid potency for each batch. Additionally, brands that believe consumers may mistake their products for candy should also invest in child-proof packaging to mitigate potential child poisoning incidents. Ultimately, making a visible effort to operate compliantly instills confidence in regulators and consumers and may pave the way for more HDPC business opportunities in the future. Self-regulation is how the early regulated cannabis markets earned consumer trust.
Psychotropic cannabinoids are being synthetically developed and added to various products sold around the country. Some may feel that manufacturers and retailers are simply making the best of gray areas within the market. However, there are no gray areas. If we continue down this road, consumers could be harmed, businesses will be impacted and our industry’s reputation could be permanently damaged. Fortunately, there are already existing measures that can be used to proactively address how to ensure they are adequately regulated to keep patients and consumers safe without adversely impacting business growth. If the industry wishes to reach its potential as a truly advanced and legitimate sector, all stakeholders must play a role in shaping its future.