In the five years since the 2018 Farm Bill legalized hemp and hemp-derived products in the U.S., the market for hemp-derived cannabinoids has skyrocketed. Specifically, hemp-derived THC products — including the less potent but still psychotropic delta-8 THC — have seen a huge boost in popularity, acting as an alternative that can still get consumers high.

While hemp-derived THC products are widely available, even in states with legal adult-use cannabis programs, the emerging industry is especially advantageous for people who are otherwise unable to purchase legal cannabis in states that have yet to enact reform measures.

With this changing landscape, a new study sought out to further investigate the trends surrounding these less-known cannabinoids. Ultimately, the research published by the American Medical Association (AMA) confirmed that cannabis prohibition did indeed turn consumers toward the hemp-derived cannabinoid market. 

The study suggests that lack of legal cannabis laws in a variety of states may be promoting the still-unregulated hemp-derived cannabinoid market, including intoxicating cannabinoids like delta-8 THC.

A Closer Look at Hemp-Derived Cannabinoid Usage

The federally funded research, published in the journal JAMA Network Open, claims to be the first-ever set of scientific data examining trends on emerging cannabinoids like delta-8 THC, CBG and CBN, along with updated trends on CBD consumption.

To examine these trends, researchers at the University of Michigan, University at Buffalo and Legacy Research Institute looked at survey data from 1,169 adults between June 22 and 26, 2023. They assessed past-year cannabis, CBD, delta-8 THC, CBG and CBN use and whether participants had heard of emerging cannabinoids during the past year.

Among the participants, 26.3% reported past-year cannabis use and 71.7% had heard of CBD, compared to 41.2% for delta-8 THC, 18.4% for CBG and 16.8% for CBN. CBD use saw a 50% increase over the past four years, with 21.1% reporting past-year CBD use. The progression likely points to the broader accessibility of CBD after the signing of the 2018 Farm Bill.

Regarding past-year use for other cannabinoids, 11.9% reported using delta-8 THC, 5.2% used CBG and 4.4% used CBN. Looking broader, 25.2% of total participants reported past-year use of any emerging cannabinoid. 

Researchers also found that residing in states with medical or recreational cannabis laws was negatively associated with delta-8 THC use, likely because consumers already had the ability to legally purchase THC products sourced from cannabis.

Cannabis Prohibition: An Unintentional Push to Delta-8 THC?

Authors note that this study provides the first estimate of past-year prevalence of CBN, delta-8 THC and CBG use in the U.S. The study also notes that prevalence of past-year cannabis use was “somewhat higher” than in other studies, though they still found that this trend was associated with younger age groups. Past-year cannabis use was also associated with the use of emerging cannabinoid products.

“Higher delta-8 THC use in states without medical or adult-use cannabis laws suggests that cannabis prohibition may unintentionally promote delta-8 THC use,” researchers said. The study noted that, among those who used cannabis in the past year, those living in states without recreational cannabis laws were more than twice as likely to have used delta-8 THC.

While there are few controlled human studies surrounding emerging cannabinoids, researchers point to the current survey data available suggesting that these products are typically used to treat sleep or pain in place of other drugs.

“Based on these results, we support ongoing public health surveillance efforts targeting

emerging cannabinoids because of lack of industry standards to protect consumers and similar

pharmacology or effects of delta-9 THC and its hemp-derived impairing analogues (eg, delta-8 THC), which may be of particular concern for adolescents and young adults,” researchers conclude.

The Future of Hemp-Derived Cannabinoids

Regulating hemp-derived cannabinoids has been a hot topic in recent years, in that the market for intoxicating cannabinoids like delta-8 THC has regularly been described by lawmakers as an “unintended consequence” of the 2018 Farm Bill. Some states have opted to ban such cannabinoids or regulate intoxicating cannabinoids independently from CBD.

Back in May, Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) officials explained that synthetic cannabinoids are banned and that the administration is in the process of developing a rule to formally clarify this policy. Later in 2023, a newly revealed email provided written confirmation that delta-8 THC synthesized from legal CBD is considered a prohibited controlled substance by the DEA.

It’s expected that some of these issues will be addressed in the next iteration of the Farm Bill, which has been delayed from this year until 2024.

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