Discussing delta-8 THC: Q&A with MUSC scientists who study cannabis

May 28, 2024
A wrapped piece of chocolate, a yellow can and a packaged gummy leaf. The labels say they contain delta-8 THC.
A piece of chocolate, a drink and a gummy containing delta-8 THC bought in Lowcountry stores. Photo by Sarah Pack

The psychoactive substance delta-8 THC is showing up in snacks, drinks, vapes and other items for sale in the Lowcountry and beyond. Scientists at the Medical University of South Carolina who study cannabis are finding more and more of their research participants are consuming delta-8.

And that’s no isolated trend. Case in point:  A recent national study found more than a tenth of high school seniors had used delta-8 THC in the past year.

So a pair of cannabis researchers at MUSC, Rachel Tomko, Ph.D., and Ashley Dowd, Ph.D., agreed to answer some key questions about the substance. 

Tomko is an associate professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences and an investigator with MUSC’s Cannabinoid Research Collective. The group is made up of scientists and medical experts studying the effects of cannabis and seeking ways to reduce the negative effects and improve people’s health. The National Institutes of Health sponsors all of its studies.

Dowd recently joined MUSC from Johns Hopkins University, where she was a postdoctoral research fellow conducting research that included the use of delta-8. Dowd is now a postdoctoral fellow with MUSC’s Addiction Sciences Division.

Q: What is delta-8?

Tomko and Dowd said delta-8 THC is one of many cannabinoids found in the cannabis plant. Here’s a quick explanation of some terms and concepts they use in this Q&A.

People may be surprised to hear this next fact, considering how many delta-8 products are out there, but cannabis plants don’t actually contain much delta-8 THC. So manufacturers usually produce delta-8 from hemp-derived cannabidiol, or CBD, according to the Food and Drug Administration.

The result of that production is a weaker psychoactive cannabinoid than the one that produces the high in marijuana, reports the website for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. That’s based on input from people who have used delta-8.

So it has some nicknames that reflect that perception. “People think of it as weed light. Or diet weed,” Tomko said. “Since it comes from a plant, there's this perception that it's a natural product. But actually, it's synthesized in the laboratory setting to make it in the quantities that are needed to sell.”

And that may be unclear to users, Tomko said. “When people are making it in the laboratory, there can be a lot of cross-contamination, and we don't necessarily even know what the contaminants are. The products are not regulated for safety.” 

The Food and Drug Administration is concerned about that, too. Its website says some manufacturers may use potentially unsafe household chemicals to make delta-8 THC, and more chemicals may be used to change the color of the final product. It also states that the FDA has not evaluated or approved any delta-8 products for safe use – and they may pose serious health risks.

Q: What are delta-8’s effects?

“So, the same types of effects you would experience from cannabis, including a high, you can experience from delta-8,” Tomko said. “It is thought to be milder, but the effects are similar. It acts on the same sort of receptors in the brain but not quite to the same extent as traditional cannabis.”

Companies that make delta-8 products capitalize on that idea. For example, one selling delta-8 THC drinks in the Lowcountry and beyond advertises them as causing “a friendlier sensation than regular THC.”

But Dowd said some of delta-8’s effects are clearly negative. “Some people report anxiety as a result of using it, and nausea. Dizziness, restlessness or sleepiness, those types of symptoms.”

The FDA said it has received reports of “adverse effects involving delta-8 THC-containing products” affecting adults and children. Those effects included hallucinations, vomiting, tremor, the anxiety Dowd cited, confusion and loss of consciousness. More than half of the people named in those reports required medical intervention.

Q: How do people consume delta-8?

Delta-8 THC is found in gummies, chocolate, cookies, drinks and other products. They often advertise sweet flavors such as watermelon, raspberry, cookie dough and fruity pebbles. “There are also delta-8 vapes and blunts,” Dowd said.

The products don’t have a distinctive smell, she added. “They’re very discreet. So it’s not obvious that someone eating a gummy or a cookie is consuming delta-8.”

Q: Where are people getting delta-8?

It’s not hard to find delta-8. CBD stores stock it. So do other places, Dowd said.

You can buy them at smoke shops. If you go to a head shop down the street, you can get it. Sometimes you can even see them at convenience stores. That’s not as common, though, from my experiences. But often, if you go to a vape shop, you'll even see on the windows, ‘Now selling delta-8 here, selling THC here.’ So they’re very common in vape shops and smoke shops.”

Q: What’s next for delta-8?


Tomko said plenty of work lies ahead for delta-8 researchers and others with an interest in expanding what the public knows about the substance. “I will say the science is not quite up to speed just yet.” 

MUSC’s Cannabinoid Research Collaborative, a group that looks at trends in cannabis use, is part of the effort to change that. That’s important, in part because Tomko said the public has the right to know what’s actually in delta-8 items. 

“Whenever we take a look at products that are actually on the shelves, they don't contain exactly what the labels say they contain. There’s a ton of variability of what’s in the products.”

Dowd agreed. “We got a lot of products back from analysis that were supposed to be pure delta-8 products, and they did have other isomers in them. THC isomers are also known as semi-synthetic cannabinoids or THC analogs and are compounds within the cannabis plant structurally related to delta-9 THC,” she said.

She said people also need to learn about dose sizes. “One other thing that comes up with a lack of regulation is very, very high quantities. I like to go out and just see what places have and what they’re selling because it moves very, very fast. This boom has happened very recently, and there’s already just a proliferation of products. Something that I noticed recently in South Carolina was a product that advertised containing 6,000 milligrams in one dose of a gummy.”

A normal dose in a delta-8 THC product is more like 30 milligrams, she said. Six-thousand milligrams is 200 times higher than that.


That leads to another important piece of the delta-8 puzzle going forward: education. 

Dowd said in light of the research showing delta-8 use on the rise among students, young people, in particular, need to be educated about it. “I haven't heard of very many programs going out into schools and teaching about this.

“We need to provide empirically based information to the general public about what it is and the potential harms, especially for kids who might not make that association so quickly that this is related to cannabis.” 

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