Confusion and a lack of data on hemp cannabinoids is being exploited by biased actors to undermine the hemp industry’s fastest growing market.
It has been about four years since Congress legalized hemp, and the reintroduction of this incredibly versatile cash crop to the U.S. has been fraught with obstacles; a lack of federal guidance, inconsistent and burdensome state regulations, and the bursting of a huge CBD bubble that cratered the market and left farmers with literal tons of unsold hemp stock. In the aftermath of that bubble, Delta-8 and other hemp cannabinoids made from CBD (often called “minor,” “novel,” or “hemp-derived” cannabinoids) —started to gain popularity, eventually helping to help relieve the oversupply crisis.
Novel cannabinoids are, to date, the only part of the hemp industry to match the sky-high expectations for the plant prior to 2018. This summer, Hemp Analyst Chase Hubbard of Fastmarkets estimated that at least three quarters of all hemp crude extract nationally was being converted to cannabinoids like Delta 8 —and their popularity has only continued to grow. Given that, according to the USDA, $640 million in flower hemp (the variety from which cannabinoids are typically extracted) was produced in 2021, it is fair to estimate that novel cannabinoids could account for as much as half a billion dollars of 2021’s hemp production. And, considering the huge declines in licensed hemp growers since the CBD bubble popped, keeping these end markets open for their crops takes on a life or death urgency for the country’s newest agricultural commodity. It is little-known (and less acknowledged), but the importance of novel cannabinoids like delta-8 to the nascent hemp economy cannot be overstated.
Despite (or maybe because of) their exploding popularity, warnings about the dangers of delta-8 have become the norm since 2020, with dire predictions and worrisome claims proliferating in the press, white papers, webinars, trade show panels, and more. Because so many of these rely on some combination of misunderstanding and misdirection, it can be instructive to separate what we know from what we don’t actually know, so that we can understand the real risks and opportunities around these hemp products.
Delta-8 fear content is fed into the media bloodstream and spread widely across the internet almost every week. One of the most popular references in these missives is to a Consumer Update issued in May by the FDA (5 Things to Know about Delta-8 Tetrahydrocannabinol – Delta-8 THC). Regrettably, it didn’t actually tell consumers the types of things they’d need to know to make informed decisions about purchasing Delta-8. For instance, it detailed 2,362 calls to National Poison Control Centers reporting exposures to Delta 8 THC products over a 13-month period. Sounds scary! However, shedding a little light on the situation is all it takes to realize that abject terror may not be warranted. What might have been helpful for the FDA to share in the report is how those numbers stack up against other substances reported to the National Poison Control Centers. When you look at their published data, in the most recent 12-month period available online, you find these substances all had more reported exposures:
- Artist paints (non-water color) – 3,123
- Fluoride toothpaste – 12,935
- Hand soap – 13,190
- Antacids – 9,151
- Multi-vitamin tablets – 11,592
So, what the FDA’s numbers actually show is that —according to their own published, publicly-available data— roughly five times as many people called poison control about toothpaste as called about Delta-8.
The federal government has never played straight with how it talks about cannabis, which is why it might be a little jarring when you see them cited so credulously by some in the marijuana industry (“marihuana” was chosen for its foreignness back when they were trying to ban the plant and is still the federal term for varieties of the cannabis plant that aren’t hemp and are therefore still federally illegal). The MJ industry, though, is not the legalization movement; the corporations who have profited most from state legalization are the ones who have the most to gain from maintaining the status quo.
Maybe that explains how the California Cannabis Industry Association can rationalize this white paper, which they unironically titled “PANDORA’S BOX” with the subtitle “The Dangers of a National, Unregulated, Hemp-Derived Intoxicating Cannabinoid Market”.
The paper contains numerous factual inaccuracies, beginning right in the title: Delta 8 has already been banned in more than 13 states, so the national market they point to is a straw man —the first of many. But consider the framing, because it’s really remarkable: The leading Cannabis trade association in the largest state in the U.S. is making the clear analogy between Cannabis and Pandora’s Box. In Greek mythology, Pandora’s Box contained “all the evils in the world.” Is that really what they think about the Cannabis plant, or are they tying themselves in rhetorical knots in order to fan the flames of a consumer safety scare?
The CCIA surely knows that NIH’s 2019 National Survey on Drug Use and Health reports that approximately 95,000 people die each year from alcohol-related deaths (including more than 4,000 overdoses alone). And yet, states regulate everything from where and when you can buy alcohol to how big a shot is. And though the white paper calls for top-down, Federal regulation of hemp cannabinoids at the national level, the MJ industry itself exists in a federally illegal space, more than happy to themselves be regulated on a state basis.
Why the disparity when it comes to hemp? Why should hemp farmers and manufacturers be subject to a different set of rules, and regulated at the federal level, even though the FDA’s numbers themselves show that Delta 8 has had less impact on consumer health than hand soap? There is no rationale where that makes sense, and calls from the MJ industry to do so should properly be understood to be what they are: disingenuous attempts to stymie the nascent hemp industry’s fastest growing sector.
Make no mistake: the corporations profiting most from state legal marijuana want delta 8 THC to go away, or else go to them. But hemp businesses shouldn’t be penalized simply because they waited until it was federally legal to get into the cannabinoids business.
I’m going to get emails, so let me say this clearly: No one is downplaying the actual risks. What is mostly happening is that voices who have motives other than consumer safety are quite obviously overstating the actual risks.
One of the most credible concerns is the threat of low-quality products that aren’t cleaned and tested properly and that may contain residual solvents or inaccurate labels. Anyone who is serious about addressing that threat would be elevating industry leading companies like 3Chi, Hometown Hero CBD, Exhale Wellness, and Koi CBD, and others that have made the substantial investments in manufacturing necessary to ensure that consumers can count on the purity and quality of their products.
Focusing on educating the market, from producers to consumers, is the quickest way to a future where unsafe or unclean products have no place on shelves. You can review the HIA’s position on the legality of Delta 8 here, and out positions on cannabinoids and consumer safety here, and the association is currently seeking volunteers and nominations for a standing Committee on Consumer Safety to help provide clarity from a national perspective and to make recommendations informed by the empirical evidence.
The opportunities that come with hemp’s legalization are only beginning to be explored, and the challenges are very real. But they aren’t anywhere near as terrifying as the delta 8 boogie man being conjured in the media.
Heck, I just might go as Delta 8 for Halloween.
Jody McGinness is the Executive Director of the Hemp Industries Association