In 2022, there are all sorts of ways to get high—or just vaguely relaxed—off marijuana and hemp. You don’t need to live in a state where pot is legal to buy edibles with THC-like compounds in them—delta-8 gummies can be found in gas stations across America, and hemp-derived delta-9 THC edibles can be purchased online or even in the metaverse.
Want the calming effects of pot, without the altered mental state? There’s CBD, which has become ubiquitous, found in tinctures, bath bombs, dog treats, and lattes. But there’s also CBN (which allegedly helps with sleep) and something called CBG (which scientists think could be helpful for pain … maybe).
These are all cannabinoids: compounds extracted from cannabis plants that interact with the body’s endocannabinoid system, which regulates various neural functions like movement and memory. We all have an endocannabinoid system; it doesn’t have anything to do with cannabis except for the fact that cannabinoids, like those found in weed and hemp, can excite it. No one really knows why pot plants are so rich in cannabinoids, but as far as plants go, they seem to have a monopoly on them. (Though they can be made synthetically, almost no other plants contain cannabinoids).
The legality of the various cannabinoids—from THC to CBG to THC-O— is tricky. Weed itself is of course legal for recreational use only in specific states. But a piece of 2018 legislation called the Agriculture Improvement Act, also known as the farm bill, opened up a loophole that allows the rest of the cannabinoid alphabet to be sold. This bill legalized hemp, which the law defines as containing less than 0.3 percent of delta-9-THC by weight. Plants with THC above this limit are usually defined as marijuana. Plants below that limit? Go ahead and extract cannabinoids from them, as Thomas Howard, a cannabis lawyer—yes, a real job—advises his clients.
The farm bill states that anything derived from hemp is legal as long as the final product contains less than the limit of THC. And most of the cannabinoids that can be derived from marijuana can be found in hemp, too. The current farm bill expires a year from now, in September 2023, and Howard guesses that a new farm bill could get rid of the loophole. But until then, it’s kind of a free-for-all.
What that means for the consumer in the meantime: Even if weed isn’t legal where you live, there are a ton of weedlike products available for purchase, even ones with psychoactive compounds. But you should know there isn’t really a solid system for regulating products made from these compounds. “I think that people are curious, and entrepreneurs and companies are looking for interesting ways to reach different markets or consumers. You have all these products that are emerging,” says Ziva Cooper, director of the UCLA Cannabis Research Initiative. Those products include everything from gummies loaded up with hemp-derived delta-8 to vapes containing synthetic THC-O acetate—a compound that is, anecdotally, way stronger than THC. “We’re moving away from the plant at this point, and at the end of the day we don’t know what the public health consequences are of a lot of it,” says Cooper. As many experts point out, if weed were simply legal, people wouldn’t have to rely on understudied compounds sold through a poorly regulated loophole to get high.
If you want to dabble in the world of cannabinoids, experts I spoke to advised looking for companies that provide certificates of analyses to confirm that what you’re buying isn’t contaminated with harmful byproducts like heavy metals or pesticides. And be mindful that the dosages listed on the label may not always be accurate. Eric Leas, assistant professor at the University of California–San Diego Herbert Wertheim School of Public Health, recommends that consumers “start low and go slow.” “There’s a ton of mislabeling of products,” he explains. “You might get way more or way less than you expect.” It sucks but, until these products are better regulated, a lot of safety is up to the user’s discretion.
There also are an awful lot of anecdotal claims about what different products do, and what they feel like to take—and often, the way these products are marketed don’t make it very clear what cannabinoids do, or do not do. Which requires one more blanket note of caution: “We know what people tell us, but don’t forget there is a huge placebo effect out there,” said Daniele Piomelli, director of the University of California–Irvine Center for Cannabis. “Unless one does controlled studies where you give placebo to a subject and delta-10 to another subject”—delta-10 being one of the many cannabinoids this piece will get into— “the person doesn’t know what they’re getting.” Then again, the placebo effect can be quite pleasant: If something makes you feel good, that’s good!
With all this in mind, here is a look at what’s out there on shelves, what experts think about them, and whether they’re worth the marketing hype.
What it is: Delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (abbreviated as delta-9 THC or just THC) is the primary intoxicating psychoactive compound in pot, responsible for that sweet, sweet high. However, contrary to popular belief, THC isn’t just hanging out in cannabis plants. (That’s why you can’t just snack on a cannabis leaf and get high.) Rather, the plant makes a precursor molecule (THCA) that is converted to the THC when the plant is heated. This process, known as decarboxylation, happens as you smoke weed, or when the plant is prepared in an oven to be an ingredient in edibles.
Does it work? Considering “THC” is synonymous with “weed,” yes!
How to take it: In terms of method of ingestion, the possibilities are truly endless: There are edibles, pens, tinctures, and also good ol’ bud. As long as it has enough THC—which mostly binds to a cannabinoid receptor in the brain and activates neurons in the central nervous system—it’ll do the trick.
Legal status: Currently, 37 states and the District of Columbia have legalized medical marijuana, and 19 states plus D.C. have fully legalized it. (A full breakdown of legalization status in each state can be found here.) It is, sadly, still illegal at the federal level, likely inspiring the recent reliance on alternatives.
However, some people still get away with selling delta-9 THC because of the farm bill loophole that technically means it’s OK to sell as long as it’s derived from hemp and contains less than 0.3 percent THC by weight, which, in a gummy, can still be a pretty high dosage. (This was the case for the weed gummies Slate’s Shannon Palus bought in the metaverse.)
What it is: Cannabidiol (CBD) is the second-most-prevalent ingredient in the cannabis plant (behind THCA) and does not get you high, at least not in the same way THC does. (Scientists suggest this is likely because the molecules act on different receptors.) Although you cannot get “stoned” from using CBD, it’s known for having a calming and relaxing effect. A salesperson at a local CBD store I visited while working on this piece explained that the cannabinoid has three main uses: pain, sleep, and anxiety. (She also told me how she swears by the CBD-infused pet treats to help ease her cat’s separation anxiety.)
Does it work? Some of those salesperson claims have been supported by research … sort of. “There are very promising studies showing that CBD can reduce psychosis in people with schizophrenia,” Piomelli said. “There are some promising, but not conclusive, studies suggesting that CBD may work to reduce anxiety, which is something that sometimes THC also does. There are also some pretty good [but] not conclusive studies, suggesting CBD, especially when applied topically on the skin, can reduce inflammation.” The bottom line here is that if you’re curious about CBD, it might be worth trying it and just seeing what it does (or perhaps does not) do for you. Plenty of people are: The demand for CBD in recent years has increased drastically, so much so that the global cannabidiol market is estimated to reach $47.22 billion by 2028.
How to take it: CBD is mostly sold as an oil, but there are also CBD extracts, oil-based capsules, and vaporized liquids. There are CBD-infused foods, drinks, and even lube. (You can read about what happened when several Slatesters tried CBD-infused seltzers—and why seltzer is not the best way to consume CBD—here.)
Is it legal? According to the aforementioned farm bill, yes.
What it is: Delta-8 is best described as “weed’s younger sibling.” Classified as an isomer of delta-9 THC—which is a fancy way of saying it has the same molecules in a different order—it is less potent than its older sibling but still has psychoactive properties. (Check out Slate’s guide to delta-8 THC for more on the popular compound.)
Does it work? A study published in the Journal of Cannabis Research in January that surveyed 521 users found that delta-8 offers something of a middle ground between “regular weed” and CBD. “With Delta 8, I am able to perform my normal day to day activities, i.e., no couch lock, paranoia, munchies,” wrote a study participant quoted in the paper. “I am able to function well at work under the influence of Delta 8 whereas under the influence on Delta 9 at work, I am paranoid and feel less motivated to do work activities.”
How to take it: It’s probably best to stick to edibles, tinctures, and vapes (though those may also have their fair share of chemicals, but more on that later). The cannabinoid occurs naturally in trace amounts, and while there is “delta-8 flower” that you can smoke, it’s usually a hemp product sprayed with delta-8 THC.
Is it legal? Despite being somewhat similar in structure and effect to delta-9 THC, delta-8 is federally legal, or at least legalish. Most of the delta-8-THC on the market is derived from those trace amounts in hemp, so under the aforementioned current law it’s good to go. Some states, though, aren’t super on board with the legal loophole being used for delta 8, and have introduced measures to regulate or ban this cannabinoid specifically. (Oregon was the first to do so.) In the states that don’t have any rules, you can find products in vape shops, head shops, and even gas stations.
What it is: Cannabinol (CBN) is a mildly psychoactive compound that’s basically the byproduct of old THC. And although it seems to be derived from THC, it’s definitely not as popular or well researched as THC or CBD. It’s sometimes marketed as helping with sleep.
Does it work? It’s starting to gain attention due to its alleged sedative properties and its potential ability to help with sleep problems. The CBD salesperson I chatted with equated it to an “indica” strain of delta-9 THC. (The indica-sativa distinction isn’t exactly scientific, either.)
And while folks selling CBN seem to really market the sleep claim, there isn’t much evidence to support it. “CBN is one of those that there’s not a lot of literature about. We don’t know a whole lot about what it can do,” Leas said. A 2021 meta-analysis in the journal Cannabis and Cannabinoid Research that analyzed eight studies testing CBN and sleep found that there is, so far, little evidence to support the benefits of CBN for sleep. ”It is possible that such claims are merely rooted in cannabis lore,” the authors wrote. Experts I spoke to were also really skeptical. “Something like CBN is thought to promote sleep but it’s not well studied at all and as far as I know, in controlled studies it hasn’t been shown to promote sleep,” Cooper said.
How to take it: CBN is sometimes found mixed with CBD products, but isolated CBN seems to be mostly available in edibles and tinctures.
Is it legal? It is “legal” if it’s derived from hemp.
What it is: CBG (cannabigerol) is another cannabinoid that is currently on the market, one that Cooper actually studies in her lab for its potential when it comes to pain management and appetite stimulation, both things the endocannabinoid system is involved in. “We think that in humans, CBG is not going to be intoxicating,” says Cooper. “We don’t think it’s going to have the same impairing effects as delta-9 THC.”
Does it work? It’s too soon to say. Not much work has been done on it, mainly because it’s often found in tandem with other cannabinoids, says Cooper: “It’s hard to see the effects of CBG because a lot of these products have delta-9 THC in them and it’s hard to separate them out.”
How to take it: The lack of research hasn’t stopped CBG from popping up on its own in tincture or edible form.
Is it legal? As long as it has less than 0.3 percent delta-9 THC!
What it is: Delta-10 is another delta-9 isomer.
Does it work? Similar to delta-8, delta-10 is reported to provide a more uplifting and relaxing high than “normal weed.” “Anecdotally, delta-10 is commonly reported to provide energizing effects, whereas delta-8 is reported to be more sedating,” writes Pat Goggins in an explainer in Leafly.
How to take it: Like delta-8, delta-10 is primarily available in edible, tincture, and vape form.
Is it legal? If it follows the conditions in the farm bill, then theoretically, yes.
What it is: Unlike the other hemp derivatives on the market, this cannabinoid actually can’t be found naturally because it’s created in a chemical process that utilizes a special molecule called acetic anhydride. This compound is an important reagent in the synthesis of another more familiar major drug: heroin. As Piomelli explained to me, in the early 1900s, scientists wanted to make better morphine and decided to start using acetic anhydride, figuring that it would allow morphine to travel to the brain faster (it did). He suspects that THC-O acetate (also known as THC-O) is following a similar logic, though there isn’t any research to support this.
Does it work? According to Leafly, it has borderline hallucinogenic effects that have prompted the nickname “the psychedelic cannabinoid.” Piomelli warns against delving into these compounds, citing the unsafe synthesis process, potential toxicity, and the sheer lack of information about the potent substance.
“We don’t know if THC-O binds to the cannabinoid receptors, we don’t know at what rate it gets converted to THC, we don’t know how much of it gets into the brain, we don’t know how quickly gets into the brain,” Piomelli said. “We basically don’t know anything.”
Is it legal? Like delta-8 and delta-10, THC-O is derived from hemp and thus theoretically legal under the farm bill.
Other Emerging Cannabinoids
As you probably have picked up on, there is a lot we don’t know about certain cannabinoids on the market. And believe it or not, there are some that we know even less about because they’re basically just entering current cannabis conversations.
HHC: Similar to THC-O, hexahydrocannabinol (HHC) is made by enhancing a THC molecule. However, in the case of HHC, it’s hydrogen-added. Leas describes it as “new delta-8 on the market” in terms of its feeling but emphasizes that there is still much that is unknown.
THC-P: Tetrahydrocannabiphorol (THC-P) was discovered recently, and by accident. Its discovery was first made public in December 2019, in a journal article published in Scientific Reports. The study suggested that it was nearly 30 times more active on cannabinoid receptors than THC, but these studies were only in animals. There are already THC-P products (hemp-derived in order to be in accordance with the farm bill) on the market, and companies boast their anti-nausea, anti-anxiety, appetite-stimulating, and stress-reducing properties. But again, THC-P is pretty new and has not been extensively studied.