By now, most people who are even a little bit familiar with cannabis (and many who aren’t) know about THC. They know what it is, what it does, and that it is a controlled substance in most countries around the world. But let’s briefly break it down, anyway – just in case.
Delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol – referred to more commonly simply as “THC” is the most common psychoactive compound produced by the cannabis plant. It has been a compound of interest for decades, ever since it was isolated, and its effects were documented in the mid-20th century. Since then, it has become the subject of intense political debate, scaremongering, and clinical medical research.
However, despite a number of impressive discoveries relating to the therapeutic potential of this common cannabinoid, stigma based on its recreational use led to the widespread, decades-long prohibition of cannabis. The ongoing prohibition of Delta-9 THC teamed with increased demand for a wider variety of products has seen the rising popularity of some similar compounds – known as THC derivatives.
What are THC Derivatives?
THC is just one of over 100 cannabinoids found in Cannabis Sativa. While it is well-known as the main psychoactive component in cannabis, that doesn’t mean it is the only one. In fact, there are a number of other cannabinoids that induce intoxication and other similar effects to THC. In most cases, these cannabinoids are actually derivatives of delta-9 THC or other cannabinoids.
Being a derivative of THC can mean that it is directly derived from the delta-9 THC compound. That is, the more common THC compound can be converted into a new compound. They are similar in structure to naturally occurring delta-9 THC but are not present in enough quantities to make their extraction cost-effective.
The reason that many of us haven’t heard of these THC derivatives is simply that they are present in such low concentrations. This means that to the average consumer and distributor, they are hardly worth noticing. However, as our understanding of the cannabis plant has developed and more effective extraction methods become available, these substances are becoming increasingly accessible.
So, what are these increasingly accessible THC derivatives? Perhaps the most well-known is Delta-8 tetrahydrocannabinol – or Delta-8 THC. Another similar compound is Hexahyrdrocannabinol (HHC).
The rising popularity of Delta-8 THC
Potentially the most popular and, in recent years, most well-known of the THC “derivatives”, as its name suggests, Delta-8 THC is extremely similar in structure to its more common relative. However, it is said to deliver a much milder ‘high’ – a quality that has made it popular among many recreational users. Like Delta-9 THC, Delta-8 can also be manufactured from CBD.
Delta-8 THC took off most notably across the USA where, despite widespread legalisation in around two-thirds of the nation’s states, Delta-9 THC remains illegal at the federal level. Despite continued federal prohibition, however, the 2018 amendment to the so-called Farm Bill unwittingly created a loophole for the legal conversion of CBD to Delta-8 THC – and hence, its supply across the country.
The 2018 Farm Bill gained a lot of attention when it was announced by then-President Donald Trump. For the first time in over 50 years, it would be federally legal for farmers to cultivate hemp and – crucially – transport their goods across state lines. This legally includes products developed from this hemp – such as CBD products. Of course, this also opened the door to the legal production of other hemp-derived products, including Delta-8 THC.
The crackdown on Delta-8 THC
While products containing Delta-8 THC were not technically controlled under federal law in the USA (by far the largest market for these products) the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) eventually set out on a mission to discourage their use.
Despite being marketed as a milder alternative to Delta-9 THC, the FDA warns that the safety of this compound – particularly when derived from other cannabinoids – should not be taken for granted. According to the government body’s latest update on the substance, Delta-8 THC products have not been evaluated or approved for safe use and may be “marketed in ways that put the public health at risk.”
The same update cites reports of adverse events, including hallucinations, vomiting, tremor, anxiety, dizziness, confusion and loss of consciousness. It also warns that the manufacture of said products involves the use of potentially harmful chemicals. Despite these warnings, however, Delta-8 THC is still considered legal at the federal level in the USA. So, what about in other countries?
Delta-8 THC in the UK
In the USA, it was the 2018 Farm Bill and the resulting de-regulation of hemp farming that allowed for the growing manufacture and supply of Delta-8 THC products. In the UK, however, hemp cultivation and processing remain tightly regulated – laughably so, in fact. Hemp farmers in the UK are not able to gather the flowers and buds of their crops at all – not for the processing of hemp extracts, nor for the more refined CBD extracts used in the production of CBD products.
While UK law around Delta-8 THC is not particularly clear, leading some to believe that the cannabinoid is not considered a controlled substance. However, last year, this assumption was shot down by a spokesperson for the Home Office. In a statement, reported by Cannavist, the spokesperson explained:
“Delta-8 THC is a cannabinol derivative that is controlled as a Class B drug under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. This means it is illegal to possess, sell or produce with a maximum penalty for supply of 14 years or a fine or both.”
Well, they might have been wrong about where Delta-8 THC comes from (Hello? It’s cannabidiol!), but the rest of the statement seems pretty clear.
What about HHC?
Hexahydrocannabinol, or HHC, also has a strikingly similar structure to Delta-9 THC. While it may not have blown up in quite the same way as Delta-8, this THC derivative is slowly gaining recognition. It is a minor cannabinoid that occurs naturally in Cannabis Sativa but, again, at extremely low levels. Like Delta-8 THC, it can be manufactured from CBD and THC in a lab; however, it may also have a legal advantage over Delta-8 – it isn’t called THC…
HHC is produced through a process called hydrogenation. This was first achieved with Delta-9 THC, which involved modifying the molecular structure of the compound by replacing a double bond with two hydrogen bonds. Today, the vast majority of HHC is manufactured using hemp-derived CBD – thanks to its increased availability in the USA. While HHC products are not as common as those containing Delta-8 THC, some forecasts indicate that the prominence may soon be on the rise.
In the UK, however, we will probably have a little longer to wait. While a Google search will return plenty of results for HHC products available to buy in the UK, the legality and therefore safety and quality of these products must still be questioned. It may be better to wait it out after all.