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Business & Economy

Ohio retailers keep an eye on state regulation of ‘intoxicating' hemp

Two men stand and talk at a counter of a shop.
Columbus Botanical Depot
Delta-8 products comprise only 10% of Columbus Botanical Depot's stock according to owner Joe Brennan.

In January, Gov. Mike DeWine warned Ohioans about the potential dangers of delta-8 tetrahydrocannabinol, a synthetic cannabinoid that the state has called “intoxicating hemp.” During the scrum, DeWine displayed a box of delta-8 THC infused breakfast bars featuring the grinning likeness of cereal mascot Tony the Tiger.

While delta-8 is currently legal in Ohio, state lawmakers are weighing regulations on a substance all-too-often marketed toward children, its detractors say. Regional cannabis experts and entrepreneurs interviewed by Ideastream Public Media said with a potential crackdown coming, retailers should consider phasing out these products, if not eliminating them entirely.

Delta-8 is chemically similar to delta-9 THC, the more powerful intoxicant found in traditional marijuana products. Known in cannabis culture as “diet weed,” delta-8 offers a subdued psychoactive effect – about half as potent as delta-9, according to Jessica Krueger, a professor of community health and health behavior at the University of Buffalo. Both compounds originate from the cannabis plant, with proponents championing similar benefits – from increased appetite to pain suppression.

Yet, delta-8 has not been regulated or approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and is more likely to be found at a gas station or neighborhood headshop than at your local dispensary, said Jeremy Cooper, an Akron-born cannabis “chef” and educator.

Though federally legal, delta-8 is banned in 17 states, with products “severely restricted” in seven more as of November 2023, according to the National Cannabis Industry Association, a trade group based in Washington. D.C.

“Delta-8 is being used as a substitute for those who either don’t have access to THC or can’t legally access it,” said Cooper, who makes delta-8 gummies, chocolates, vapes, tinctures, and even transdermal patches. “In those states that are illegal or in question, people are getting it through Amazon or other locations. It’s more about accessibility and still wanting to feel something.”

The pros and cons of delta-8

Delta-8 comes from hemp, a variety of marijuana plant that contains 0.3% or less of t THC, the chemical primarily responsible for the cannabis “high.” Hemp, legalized in the U.S. as part of the 2018 Farm Bill, is grown for fiber, grain, seeds and non-intoxicating cannabidiol, commonly referred to as CBD. The naturally-present CBD in hemp can be converted into delta-8 THC for edible and vaping products.

These items are often billed as medical treatments, a claim disputed as “misbranding” by the FDA in May 2022. Area naysayers include Joe Brennan, owner of CBD provider Columbus Botanical Depot, whose delta-8 offerings now comprise about 10% of his stock.

Brennan collaborates with Clean Remedies and other Northeast Ohio dispensaries on his larger delta-9 selection. The hemp entrepreneur also has a general distrust in how delta-8 is manufactured, he said.

“Delta-8 is being used as a substitute for those who either don’t have access to THC or can’t legally access it. In those states that are illegal or in question, people are getting it through Amazon or other locations. It’s more about accessibility and still wanting to feel something.”
Jeremy Cooper, cannabis “chef” and educator.

“Companies are taking hemp-derived CBD and adding an enzyme to flip it to delta-8,” said Brennan. “Most if not all companies are using a synthetic way to convert these cannabinoids, and I don’t like that. And I’m not 100% sold that it’s healthy and won’t cause any problems down the road. Now that delta-9 is out (in the market), there’s no reason anyone should be taking delta-8.”

The long-term effects of delta-8 usage are relatively unknown, with the FDA reporting hallucinations, vomiting, anxiety and dizziness among users. Delta-8 has its proponents as well, who deem the substance an alternative to cannabis without the sometimes devastating impacts of alcohol.

If anything, delta-8 is a bridge for individuals not yet ready for cannabis, said Brennan.

“A lot of people call it ‘bud light’ as far as the psyhcoactivity, and it does serve a purpose of being a happy medium in between CBD and delta-9 THC,” Brennan said. “It could be a stepping stone – if a customer is willing to try CBD, eventually they try other cannabinoids like delta-8. Once they realize it’s not the devil’s lettuce, then they might move over to the delta-9 realm.”

Keeping delta-8 out of the wrong hands

Sen. Steve Huffman (R-Tripp City) recently drafted a regulatory proposal based on language included in House Bill 86, which would restrict the selling delta-8 only by licensed marijuana retailers to of-age consumers. While HB86 is currently stalled after passage in the Ohio Senate, Huffman said his proposal addresses concerns from CBD retailers about legislative overreach.

“The idea is to keep intoxicating substances out of the hands of kids,” said Huffman. “We’re trying to strike that balance where 95% of the products out there will continue to be sold to people.”

Cleveland attorney Jim Ickes has been guiding medical marijuana startups along the path of company formation, application and licensure for the last eight years. Ohio cannabis entrepreneurs probably need not worry about a complete delta-8 prohibition, he said.

“I imagine it’ll be tucked under the medical marijuana or adult-use program, rather than an out-and-out ban,” Ickes said. “Given the void of actual peer-reviewed studies related to dangers associated with delta-8, a ban would be heavy-handed, but because it’s a psychoactive compound, I do expect greater regulations to some degree.”

Man in a white lab coat stands in kitchen as he cooks cannabis.
Jeremy Cooper
 “When you buy delta-8 from your local gas station, you don’t know if they have some type of certification for it,” said cannabis "chef" and educator Jeremy Cooper.

In 2022, Ohio’s Division of Cannabis Control ordered medical processors to test and label any products that included delta-8. However, few other regulations exist, leading to an influx of untested products from China and Eastern Europe, noted cannabis educator Cooper.

“When you go to a grocery store and buy a candy bar, there’s information on the back,” said Cooper. “When you buy delta-8 from your local gas station, you don’t know if they have some type of certification for it, or where they’re getting it from.”

Losing delta-8 would harm small businesses and give corporate cannabis interests an even bigger monopoly on the overall industry, Cooper added. At the same time, something must be done about products that are produced under questionable circumstances, he said.

“We do need legislation and regulation of the product so (cannabis businesses) can continue selling them in a manner that does not appeal to children,” said Cooper.

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Business & Economy Ohio Newshempcannabis
Douglas J. Guth is a freelance journalist based in Cleveland Heights. His focus is on business, with bylines in publications including Crain's Cleveland Business and Middle Market Growth.