CBD altered to THC sold in Connecticut despite law

THC-laden products that can get a user as high as any bought in a dispensary are currently being sold around the state outside of any regulation or enforcement, even though the first legal, recreational cannabis retail shops have yet to open in Connecticut.

The state Department of Agriculture regulates the state’s hemp growers. The state Department of Consumer Protection regulates the licensed manufacturers in Connecticut who make CBD-based products. But no state agency tests or regulates the products sold in CBD shops, many of which are manufactured out of state.

Alcohol sales are regulated, as are tobacco sales. CBD shops, however, are not licensed and therefore sales of certain products with certain THC compounds go unregulated.  

“Like any industry that we regulate, DCP only has regulatory authority over entities that hold a credential granted by our agency,” Department of Consumer Protection spokeswoman Kaitlyn Krasselt said.

CBD products made from hemp don’t have the psychoactive effects commonly associated with cannabis. THC, the chemical compound found in cannabis that produces the feeling of being “stoned,” cannot by Connecticut law be present in concentrations greater than 0.3 percent. 

“We define cannabis as any product containing more than 0.3 percent THC on a dry weight basis, including products extracted from hemp,” said Krasselt. 

But CBD can be converted into forms of THC that produce the euphoric feeling of being stoned. Products containing those synthetically produced forms of THC are sold across Connecticut in CBD shops, and smoke shops, among other locations.

One of those THC compounds, called delta-8, has been associated with serious health concerns, in part because of the solvent-based process often used to convert the CBD. Delta-9 THC, which is most commonly associated with cannabis, is specifically prohibited in the 2018 federal farm bill that legalized the growth of hemp nationwide and the sale of CBD products made from that hemp.

Both delta-8 and delta-9 THC are against the law in Connecticut, if they are sold outside a legal medical dispensary. “It is illegal to sell any products containing more than 0.3 percent THC without a license to sell cannabis,” Krasselt said. “Our adult-use market is not open and no final licenses have been granted, other than those already existing in our medical market.”

Nonetheless, a Hearst Connecticut Media Reporter saw products advertised as containing "delta-8" at two head shops in Connecticut, where the packages were prominently displayed despite the law. 

"This is where this is where the law really needs to get cleaned up,” said Greg Sotzing, a UConn chemist. “It needs to have some scientific input, not policymakers just making these laws up.”

The problem, according to John Harloe, a lawyer for Colorado-based hemp product producer Balanced Health Botanicals, is that delta-8 can be produced illicitly around the country, with little enforcement at point of sale. 

“The problem isn't really regulation, it's enforcement. There's no enforcement going on anywhere,” he said.

Delta-8 may be as potent as other THC

Steve Kinsey, director of UConn’s Center for Advancement in Managing Pain, under a grant from the National Institutes of Health’s National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, has been studying the effects of delta-8 and other compounds found in cannabis. 

He said that, at least in mice, synthetically produced delta-8 THC appears to affect the same brain receptors and create the same high as other chemicals found in cannabis.

In addition to observing the mice’s behavioral changes, the animals are trained with food to poke their noses through a hole when they feel the effects of delta-9, the chemical usually associated with the euphoric effects of marijuana.

“The mouse learns over a few trials that, hey, when I feel funny in a certain way, that means I need to go over here and nose-poke,” he said. 

Administering the mice delta-8 produced the same effect. 

“They responded almost identically,” Kinsey said. “They would nose-poke over on the delta-9 trained nose poke hole, suggesting that the subjective effects of the drug were similar.”

Delta-8 also caused the mice to go into withdrawal. After being first administered a THC product, including both delta-8 and delta-9, and then given a chemical “antagonist” to precipitate withdrawal, the mice would exhibit odd behaviors.

“They show these behaviors and they almost never show otherwise,” he said. “One of them is a paw fluttering or a clapping of the paws. The other one is head twitch, which is a quick rotation of the head kind of like a wet dog drying itself off. They don't normally do this.”

Connecticut law stipulates that products sold at a legal medical dispensary may have no more than 10 milligrams of THC in any single serving. When the state’s recreational dispensaries open the legal limit will be 5 milligrams of THC. 

Synthetically produced delta-9 THC sold in CBD shops often contain 10 milligrams of THC, as much as is sold in medical dispensaries and twice as much per serving than will be sold legally in recreational dispensaries when they open. 

The dose of delta-8 needed to produce a high might be a little higher than delta-9, but manufacturers have resolved that by increasing the dose per serving to 12 milligrams. 

That’s when what’s on the is accurate, which the FDA said is often not the case. In 2019, the agency tested 21 CBD products, only 33 percent of which were properly labeled.

Sotzing likened it to alcohol prohibition: “You still have people making moonshine and you got people making legitimate gin.”

Harloe said “part of the public health issue” is that many of the chemicals in a synthetically produced THC product “can't be identified as a result of the chemical conversion.” 

Delta-9, he said, will “hide behind” delta-8 in the assay, making it difficult or impossible to to find.

“In a lot of cases, I think if you go and test these things, you'll find they’re marijuana because there's no enforcement. Nobody cares,” he said. 

Delta-8 is a cash crop

Though any form of THC cannot legally be sold in Connecticut outside of medical cannabis dispensaries, delta-9 is specifically prohibited by the 2018 federal farm bill, despite often being sold in smoke shops and other retail establishments. 

Sotzing said he was visiting his daughter at a college in Indiana and was able to buy delta-9 THC in a CBD shop. 

“I went into a CBD shop and they were selling delta-9 nine in there. I told the lady, I said, like you're going in this dangerous territory, selling delta-9 in your store,’” he said. “Then she goes, ‘It's legal,’ and I'm like, ‘really?’”

The federal prohibition against delta-9 has made delta-8 a loophole that is being exploited by “bottom feeders,” Harloe said. 

“You can buy a kilo of CBD for $300 right now and then take it into a lab and convert it chemically into delta-8 and then sell that for, I'm gonna say 10X,” he said. 

Though Kinsey said the process of converting CBD to delta-8 is not something anyone could accomplish -- “I don't think that like a high school student is going to do it,” he said -- it’s not so difficult either and often leaves behind a potentially dangerous residue. 

“There are a lot of smaller chemistry setups out there. They are converting cannabidiol CBD into delta-8 and it's a little bit of buyer beware as far as the quality control,” he said. “Most of the processes use different types of solvents, and once you put a solvent into something, it's hard to get all of that solvent back out.”

As it is converted from CBD, synthetically produced THC is not taxed like legally sold THC will be in Connecticut, cutting into states’ potential revenue and hurting the bottom line for companies like Harloe’s.

“The cost per molecule if you're going with natural THC is going to be such that the economics aren't there. But with the converted stuff you can sell it pretty cheap,” he said. “We're all down about 20 percent year over year.”

Health concerns

The U.S. Food and Drug Administrations says on its website that the agency received 104 reports of “adverse events in patients who consumed delta-8 THC products between Dec. 1, 2020, and Feb. 28, 2022,” plus 2,362 exposure cases called into poison control centers between Jan. 1, 2021 and Feb. 28, 2022.

“You don't have the strict regulation of testing for the solvents and whatnot,” Sotzing said. “It needs to be traced back to a source, because you’ve got people who make the gummies and then sell them to these smoke shops inside of Connecticut.”

In 2021, the CDC issued a warning about delta-8, saying that the “conversion process, used to produce some marketed products, may create harmful by-products that presently are not well characterized” and warning of “increased reports of adverse events related to delta-8 THC.”

“The rise in delta-8 THC products in marijuana and hemp marketplaces has increased the availability of psychoactive cannabis products, even in states, territories and tribal nations where non-medical adult cannabis use is not permitted under law,” the CDC wrote.

The Connecticut Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services said its Prevention and Health Promotion Division would be paying closer attention to synthetically made THC in the future. 

“This will be on their radar for prevention messaging and community education going forward,” spokesman Art Mongillo said by email. 

Harloe said delta-8 laden products are being sold in head shops around the country, despite some significant health concerns, particularly in places where regulated adult-use cannabis is still not legal. 

“If you want to get high and you're in an illegal state, then you probably are aware of this,” Harloe said.