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With Legal Weed Hard to Buy in Virginia, Delta-8 Fills the Void

Advertisement showing a cartoon marijuana plant
An advertisement for delta-8 outside the Katra Gala in Richmond. (Photo: Ben Paviour/VPM News)

The first time Hannah Yaman tried delta-8, she was surprised. She expected a diminished buzz compared to ordinary marijuana.

“I ate a whole gummy,” said Yaman, who works at Richmond tobacco shop Katra Gala. “And I was like, ‘Whoa, it just feels like the real thing.’”

Products with the compound are flying off the shelves at Katra Gala, where Yaman says sales now outstrip the mellower cannabidiol (CBD).

It’s not just Richmond. Delta-8 products have exploded in popularity across Virginia, even after the state legalized adult possession of small amounts of marijuana in July. Advocates say products sold under the delta-8 banner can give a mellower high than its more famous THC cannabinoid, delta-9, but a more heady buzz than CBD.

Also fueling the rise in sales: convenience. Delta-8 products are available at local gas stations and head shops. The state’s four medical dispensaries, meanwhile, are currently the only places to legally buy cannabis in the commonwealth, and they require medical licenses.

But the freewheeling days of delta-8 may be numbered. Federal law bans so-called analog drugs that mimic banned substances, even if those rules appear to be unenforced. Virginia poison centers are reporting an uptick in calls and referrals to hospitals over the product.

And at least one state lawmaker, Del. Dawn Adams (D-Richmond), wants to introduce legislation regulating the drug. She warned colleagues that there were no age restrictions or laboratory testing requirements on hemp products like delta-8.

“It's proliferated at some lightning speed,” Adams said. “I've never seen anything take on a life so fast, not even kombucha.”

Jenn Michelle Pedini, executive director of Virginia NORML, says the products need better controls.

“These products exist entirely outside of any sort of regulatory landscape,” Pedini said. “And it's because of that that they pose such a risk to consumers.”

What is Delta-8?

Marijuana contains a number of compounds that have various effects on the body. The one most familiar to cannabis users is delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the compound that produces a high. More recently, CBD has become popular for its calming effects.

The 2018 federal Farm Bill legalized hemp containing less than 0.3% delta-9 THC. But it didn’t say anything about delta-8, a similar compound that’s far less potent.

There’s not much naturally occuring delta-8 in hemp plants, according to Michelle Peace, a forensic scientist at VCU who runs a lab focused on testing e-cigarettes. Instead, most delta-8 products are made by converting CBD or delta-9 into delta-8, leading to a product some have called “semi-synthetic.”

“People are taking CBD and putting it in a very strong acid and converting it to delta-8,” she said.  “That delta-8 that we are purchasing in high concentrations in shops is synthetically generated.”

Delta-8 products are sold in the same forms as other cannabis products: smokable flowers, wax, edibles, vape cartridges and creams. Unlike cannabis, there are no rules on who can sell many of the products or age restrictions, though some stores have their own rules.

It’s clearly popular; lines at The Dispensary, a shop in downtown Richmond, sometimes stretch out of the door after work. Still, many stores are treading carefully given the legal ambiguity surrounding delta-8. Several shops in Richmond declined interview requests.

Is it safe?

The federal government isn’t keeping close tabs on what manufacturers put in products labelled delta-8. That means consumers have to take manufacturers at their word.

One test of 16 products by the U.S. Cannabis Council, which opposes unregulated delta-8 sales, found unsafe levels of copper, nickel and solvents in some products. The tests also found that none of the products complied with the legal limit on delta-9, suggesting that consumers may be getting the real thing.

Peace said her lab’s test of delta-8 products found all of them did contain that compound. But she cautioned that even products that claimed to be vetted by labs could be suspect.

“There's really a pretty immature system to make sure that these laboratories are doing good work,” Peace said.

Some of the side effects of products containing delta-8 have been serious enough to prompt hospital visits. Rutherfoord Rose, director of the Virginia Poison Center, said they’d fielded 21 calls about delta-8 so far this year compared to none last year. He estimated the center sent two-thirds of the cases to the hospital over concerns like chest pain and shortness of breath.

“The point of this is not for me to lecture adults on what they should or shouldn't take,” Rose said. “But these products that are attractive to children need to be kept out of sight and out of reach.”

What’s Next for Delta-8 in Virginia?

It’s unlikely Virginia’s laws will change before the General Assembly meets for its regular session in January.

Retail cannabis sales aren’t slated to begin until 2024. Pedini and others are pushing for a sped-up timeline using existing medical operators, a move that could diminish the attractiveness of delta-8. Others have warned that moving too quickly will leave out entrepreneurs from communities impacted by the war on drugs who lack the resources of major cannabis companies.

Del. Adams plans on introducing legislation regulating several hemp products, including delta-8, CBD and another compound called delta-10. She said the products and advertisements should  be clearly labeled with all ingredients and sales limited to those 18 and older. Delta-8 and 10, “are intoxicants and should be regulated to the degree adult-use marijuana is regulated,” she wrote in an email.

Peace warned that regulators were behind the curve. Online message boards were filled with basement chemists marketing new, more potent compounds like THC-O and THC-O-Acetate.

“We're flying under the radar here with a new generation of synthetic cannabinoids,” she said.

Yaman said some of her customers seek out delta-8 because they don’t know where to buy traditional weed. But others valued it for its milder effects.

“You can still run your errands a little bit,” she said. “You're not stuck in your house because you're not as tripped out.”

For now, delta-8 products are a tempting option for customers like Berkeley Yonce, a Katra Gala regular who said he used CBD to help treat mental health issues like PTSD.

“I love weed and I love CBD,” Yonce said. “So I wanna meet in the middle and try that out.”

Ben Paviour covers courts and criminal justice for VPM News with a focus on accountability.