Adolescents are using an often unregulated, psychoactive derivative of cannabis, according to national data released Wednesday, as the Biden administration deliberates expanding access to marijuana at the federal level. 

About 11 percent of 12th graders in the U.S. reported using Delta-8-THC in the past year, according to a new analysis supported by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, part of the National Institutes of Health. That number is still below the 30 percent of 12th graders who reported using marijuana, however.

Delta-8 is derived from the Cannabis sativa plant — varieties of which include hemp and marijuana. The substance is marketed as less potent than Delta-9, the compound responsible for the psychoactive effects of marijuana, but is often synthesized and concentrated at higher levels than what naturally occurs in the plant. 

“We don’t know enough about these drugs, but we see that they are already extremely accessible to teens,” said NIDA Director Nora Volkow. “Cannabis use in general has been associated with negative impacts on the adolescent brain, so we must pay attention to the kinds of cannabis products teens are using.”

The data could complicate hemp regulation at the state level, as some states move to rein in THC use. It could also have ripple effects around efforts to legalize marijuana, which already operates under an extremely gray patchwork of regulations at the state level, where it’s often legal, and the federal level, where it’s not. 

Congress eased restrictions on hemp in a provision in the 2018 farm bill, but the market’s evolution underscores how regulators are often unable to keep up with new methods of cultivation and usage. Much about how the drug is used and its effects are still unknown, in part because of limited data and patchwork regulations.

The failure of the hemp regulation, said Keith Humphreys, a psychiatry and behavioral sciences professor at Stanford University, “was thinking that there could be no intoxicating product generated, which shows how inventive the industry is in getting around that.” 

Marijuana access is also growing as states increasingly legalize it, and the Biden administration is currently reviewing whether it should remove the plant from Schedule I, where the Drug Enforcement Administration places the most restricted drugs with no recognized medicinal purpose. The Department of Health and Human Services recently recommended that the DEA demote the drug to Schedule III, which includes drugs like ketamine and testosterone.

But the DEA makes the final call, and has not been open to descheduling marijuana in the past. The data around teen THC use could potentially harm the chances for broader cannabis access, in much the same way that teen vaping rates have hindered the approval of flavored e-cigarettes at the FDA.

The Food and Drug Administration has not evaluated or approved Delta-8 for consumption and there is no federal age minimum to purchase products that include Delta-8 in person or online. But the substance is often sold in gummies, vapes and candy.

The FDA first sent warning letters to companies selling Delta-8 products in May 2022, saying it was “extremely troubling” that they were marketed in ways that could appeal to children.

And while hemp itself is legal at the federal level, the FDA has not approved cannabidiol — or CBD, the non-psychoactive component of both marijuana and hemp — as an additive for any food or beverage either, but those products are also widely available.

State-level cannabis policies could be associated with different levels of use. 

While marijuana use did not vary among states with different cannabis policies, states that did not legalize cannabis or regulate Delta-8 saw higher rates of Delta-8 use, according to the NIDA analysis. States in the South and Midwest also reported higher levels of Delta-8 use.

The authors wrote that the substance “may be marketed to and/or used by adolescents as a psychoactive cannabis substitute in places in which adult-use marijuana is illegal.” 

States that legalized recreational cannabis use require individuals to be at least 21 to purchase the drug, similar to tobacco.

States that did not legalize cannabis saw 14 percent of teens using Delta-8 compared to 8 percent in states that did legalize cannabis. And states that did not regulate Delta-8 saw 14 percent reporting use compared to 6 percent in states that did regulate the substance.

National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws Deputy Director Paul Armentano pointed to those statistics — and similar stats from earlier surveys — as evidence supporting marijuana regulation instead of prohibition.

“The advent of these unregulated products is primarily an outgrowth of cannabis prohibition,” he said in a statement. “There exists far less demand, and there exists a far more limited market, for these unregulated products in jurisdictions where whole-plant cannabis [is] legally regulated.”

NORML has warned consumers not to use Delta-8 products.

But Kevin Sabet, president of Smart Approaches to Marijuana, which advocates for stricter marijuana laws, interpreted the data differently, saying the study was a preview of the consequences of broader marijuana access. He pointed to the study’s lower rates of use where Delta-8 was banned (5.3 percent) or restricted (6.1 percent).

“Changing course on marijuana will exacerbate the problems of Delta-8, allowing more bad actors to distribute dangerous drugs more widely — including today’s high-potency drugs with up to 99 percent THC,” he said. “It will also mean increases in adverse effects, including greater instances of drugged driving fatalities, higher property crime rates, and an explosion in the illicit market.”

Rep. Mike Flood, R-Neb., who has previously addressed Congress about action the state attorney general has taken to restrict the products in his state, said the study demonstrates the need for other attorneys general to act. 

“Nebraska is on the front lines of Delta 8’s impact— we have retailers targeting kids with these products,” Flood said in a statement. “The NIH’s findings underscore the urgency of addressing this crisis.”

This week, Arizona Attorney General Kris Mayes issued an opinion banning the sale of Delta-8 products. Bans in Florida and South Dakota also are awaiting their governors’ signature as of Wednesday.  

Humphreys, who studies drug use, said he would not be surprised if people in states that have not legalized cannabis and have higher rates of adolescent use start pressuring their states or federal lawmakers to close the loophole. 

“If Congress is bothered by this, you know, there’s a pretty simple fix of just amending the Hemp Act to close that off,” he said, referring to the provision in the 2018 farm bill, “and we’ll see whether or not they have the energy to do it.”

 Adolescents are using an often unregulated, psychoactive derivative of cannabis, according to national data released Wednesday.  Read More