Of the more than 100 cannabinoids found in the cannabis plant, Delta-9 THC and CBD are the two most popular. Delta-9 THC is the cannabinoid found in cannabis sold in dispensaries that gets you high.
So what’s the difference between the cannabis plant and hemp plant? If the two were growing next to each other, you would not recognize the difference.
The difference is the amount of THC found in the plants. Cannabis plants containing 0.3% THC or less are considered hemp, while plants containing more than 0.3% THC are called marijuana.
CBD is the most common cannabinoid found in the hemp plant, while THC is the most common cannabinoid found in the marijuana plant.
Up until two years ago, 100% of the Delta-9 THC was naturally extracted from one of these plants. In 2018 a farm bill was signed into law allowing farmers to legally grow hemp, while at the same time allowing CBD and other naturally occurring cannabinoids to be legally sold in all 50 states.
At the same time, the number of extraction companies making CBD exploded. By 2020, there were more labs making CBD than the market demand could support, so many ended up struggling to stay in business. In the years that followed, CBD, CBG, CBN and other cannabinoids could be found online and in stores throughout the United States. CBD sales took off because consumers were able to legally experience a wide range of health benefits without intoxicating side effects of THC.
In the struggle to innovate and stay competitive, a small number of these labs started experimenting with converting CBD using various chemical reactions to make a synthetic form of THC called Delta-8. Since Delta-8 was made by converting CBD into Delta-8, it was technically legal according to the 2018 Farm Bill and sales exploded across the country.
In 2021 these same labs were able to create a synthetic form of Delta-9 THC using a similar process. Now, today this synthetic form of Delta-9 is being legally sold in gummies, gum, and a wide range of other edibles in retail stores.
Is Synthetically-Derived THC safe?
Delta-9 THC derived from cannabis has been safely consumed by people for thousands of years for medical and recreational purposes, but what about synthetically-derived Delta-8 and Delta-9? Well, considering they’ve only existed for a couple of years, there is limited safety data available.
A 2022 lab analysis of 53 of the most popular hemp-derived Delta-9 THC products found 64% (34 products) of the analyzed products used the isomerization process to convert CBD into Delta-9 THC; 19% (10 products) used THC from marijuana to beef up their levels, and only 17% (9 products) used natural hemp-derived THC.
The conversion of CBD to Delta-9 THC involves refluxing the former in a solvent (e.g., toluene or heptane) with p-toluenesulfonic acid or another acid that serves as a catalyst for 60 to 90 minutes.
These aggressive synthetic conditions can result in unwanted reaction byproducts and residual compounds. In other words: the Delta-9 THC you consume may be contaminated by harmful chemicals like dichloromethane and trichloroacetic acid.
It is possible to separate Delta-9 THC from unwanted reaction leftovers and byproducts. But, most manufacturers won’t take the time nor spend the money to remove them. Since companies aren’t testing for these residual solvents or acids, people don’t know what they are consuming.
To illustrate the severity and prevalence of contaminated Delta-9 THC products: many states have introduced laws to block or restrict the sale of synthetic cannabinoids (including Delta-8 THC), citing impurity-related health hazards as their main concern. Even attorneys are urging caution about synthetic Delta-9, predicting that the FDA will crack down any day now.
How to know if a product contains artificially made Delta-9 THC
There are two easy ways to tell if a Delta-9 product is made through this chemical process:
Taste the product. Products made from this chemical process do not have a hemp taste. THC products safely made from hemp or cannabis have an earthy, grass-like, and slightly bitter taste.
Look at the product's lab reports. THC products made through this chemical process do not have naturally occurring terpenes or other cannabinoids. THC products safely made from legal hemp contain a high concentration of CBD, CBG, CBN, CBC, and other naturally occurring cannabinoids. As an example, Joy Organics 5mg THC gummies have 25mg of CBD and 10mg of other cannabinoids.
Beyond enabling us to stay legal, the resulting ratio of cannabinoids and beneficial plant compounds more closely mirrors what mother nature intended, using only compounds extracted and refined directly from the plant. This results in the entourage effect, a well-documented phenomenon in which taking a variety of cannabinoids and terpenes together is more effective than taking any isolated forms alone.
But how does this happen? Many of these compounds have an impact on different physiological mechanisms and signaling pathways in the body. The compounds' actions on these different pathways can thus multiply the likelihood of holistic therapeutic action, putting you squarely on the path to optimal physical and mental wellness.
Hannah Smith is Joy Organics Director of Communications. She is driven by her passion for providing clear and accessible wellness and CBD education. In 2015, she received her BA in Media, Culture and the Arts from The King’s College in New York City and before Joy Organics, worked as writer and photographer in the Middle East and North Africa. Her work has been featured on Forbes, Vice, Vox, Denver Post, and the Coloradoan.