Editor’s note • This story is available to Salt Lake Tribune subscribers only. Thank you for supporting local journalism.
Mitch Butterfield, who relies on cannabis to cope with the stress of his terminal cancer diagnosis, was the first customer through the doors of his local marijuana pharmacy when it opened last year.
And though the Smithfield resident has been using the medicinal plant for about nine years, he walked out of the pharmacy with a treatment he’d never heard of before — something called Delta-8.
He’d been a bit wary about the unfamiliar vape cartridge the pharmacist had been pushing toward him, explaining that he needed “good, clean medicine” because of his health conditions. The pharmacist told him he had nothing to worry about.
But when Butterfield tried to vape it a couple of days later, he almost immediately noticed that something was off.
“Within two minutes, I was just yawning. Just yawn, after yawn, after yawn,” he said. “And then I either fell asleep or passed out.”
Regaining consciousness on the couch a few minutes later, he puzzled over what had just happened to him.
“That wasn’t even a high,” he said. “I’ve never felt anything like that.”
Butterfield initially waved off the reaction as an adjustment to a new cannabis treatment or a crash after an exhausting workday. Then, the following night, the same thing happened all over again.
The entire experience cost him his trust in Utah’s medical cannabis program. Butterfield has only been back to that pharmacy a handful of times — once to “go ballistic” on the employee who’d recommended the vape cartridge — and he’s concluded he’ll return to traveling out of state for his cannabis treatments.
And that pharmacy isn’t the only one in Utah selling Delta-8 THC, which is marketed across the nation as “diet weed,” or a less intoxicating version of the cannabis plant’s main psychoactive ingredient. With Utah’s pharmacies sometimes struggling to keep cannabis on the shelves, Delta-8 allows them to tap into another potential product source: a bloated hemp market overflowing with CBD.
In Utah, Delta-8 THC is cheaper than plant-derived THC, said Mindy Madeo, a medical marijuana pharmacist. And it has flown under the radar of federal law, making the substance easily accessible online and on convenience store shelves in some states.
But it’s also synthesized in a lab, often produced by mixing CBD with acid or bleach, according to industry experts. Madeo is among those who worry about the potential impurities created through these chemical processes and about whether the state’s quality control testing is rigorous enough to detect harmful byproducts.
She also points to a lack of medical research into Delta-8 — and to a recent FDA warning that the substance could pose “serious health risks.”
And without labeling requirements for these substances, she says, Utah patients don’t always know if their medical treatments are derived from a plant or a lab.
“You can’t just make something and test it on a population without their consent,” Madeo said. “You need to test it in a study.”
Deseret Wellness, one of the state’s marijuana pharmacy operators, has posted a response to Delta-8 concerns on social media, saying the substance has been “game-changing for many Utah medical cannabis patients.” Still, the business acknowledged that poorly-manufactured forms of the THC can leave contaminants that could be “harmful if ingested or harsh on the throat and lungs if vaped.”
In Utah, the post explained, Zion Medicinal has “developed a process to produce pure Delta-8 THC with no residual acids or impurities.”
Blake Smith, chief scientific officer for Zion Medicinal, said his company has come up with a way to manufacture Delta-8 without acids or other harsh chemicals and that their end product is about 98% pure.
“I mean, we’re talking basically as pure or more pure than your breakfast cereal, compared to how many bug parts are in there,” he said.
But Madeo and others worried about Delta-8 in Utah say they haven’t seen the safety proofs that would set their mind at ease.
Madeo isn’t opposed to exploring Delta-8 for medical value and says with more scientific studies and stronger quality controls, she could eventually grow comfortable recommending these products to patients. And she sees the substance as an early test for the cannabis industry, as other manufactured compounds, such as Delta-10 and THC-O, also make their way into the market.
“The thing that makes me nervous,” she said, “is it’s not just going to end with Delta-8.”
‘Dude, we could turn this into something’
The federal government legalized hemp in 2018, back when there was red-hot demand for CBD, one of the plant’s naturally occurring active ingredients.
The substance, which isn’t mind-altering but could have some health benefits, was showing up in everything from sports bras and leggings to toilet paper — and farmers across the country jumped at the chance to cultivate what they hoped would be a get-rich-quick crop.
Experts say the flood of new hemp producers overwhelmed the market, and the glut, combined with other factors, tanked the price of CBD. Some farmers have opted to store their harvest rather than sell it at a loss.
That’s when, according to neuroscientist Greg Gerdeman, enterprising people in the hemp world realized, “Dude, we could turn this into something that’s psychoactive.”
Or, as Utah medical cannabis advocate Christine Stenquist puts it, “They figured out a way to get people high for cheap.”
Transforming CBD oil into Delta-8 THC involves a relatively simple process, though doing it well is much more complicated, says Gerdeman, a former Florida biology professor who now runs a hemp exchange platform. While he doesn’t consider himself an expert organic chemist, Gerdeman said he could “spend a few thousand dollars on lab-wear on Etsy” and make Delta-8.
And the payoff for the hemp industry has been huge, he added.
“There are farms that kept afloat because of this demand,” said Gerdeman, who has advised Stenquist as she raises concern about Delta-8. “There were retail stores last year … that kept afloat by selling Delta-8.”
Zion Medicinal is one of two Utah medical cannabis processors that have notified officials they’re producing Delta-8, according to state regulators.
Smith of Zion Medicinal said he appreciates the substance because it’s less psychoactive and has powerful anti-nausea properties that can be useful to people undergoing chemotherapy or patients with digestive ailments.
“In some cases, it’s the right medicine for the right condition,” he said.
Federal law still classifies Delta-9 THC from the cannabis plant as an illegal controlled substance. However, the slightly different Delta-8 molecule has fallen into a gray area for the federal government, which means it’s available to buy online and in gas stations and smoke shops in many states.
The situation is a bit different in Utah, where officials have decided to treat Delta-8 and Delta-9 alike and have capped the aggregate THC concentration at 0.3% for most products. Anything above that threshold is restricted to the state’s medical marijuana program, said Cody James, who heads the industrial hemp and medical cannabis program at the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food.
Limiting Delta-8 to the medical marijuana products creates a layer of safety, James argues, since the state’s cannabis program has testing requirements to check for heavy metals, residual solvents and other contaminants.
However, it’s still possible to find vape cartridges, gummies and other items with less than 0.3% THC in Utah retailers outside the cannabis program. Madison Meldrum, who doesn’t qualify for a cannabis card but has vaped low-strength THC products to treat her anxiety, said she found Delta-8 products in a smoke shop.
The Kaysville resident stopped vaping Delta-8 after several months when she concluded it was to blame for the random bouts of nausea and vomiting she’d begun suffering. She also experienced a strange dissociated feeling while she was using the substance.
Both symptoms have disappeared since she quit using Delta-8.
And Kyle Leavitt, who has used cannabis to treat debilitating pain from rheumatoid arthritis, said he had a bad reaction to eating a Delta-8 gummy that an out-of-state friend sent him. Leavitt had hoped Delta-8 might be a good replacement for medical marijuana, which had started to give him panic attacks.
A couple of hours after he tried the gummy, he “started getting real bad tunnel vision” and began feeling faint.
“Next thing I know, I’m waking up on the ground. Just completely went unconscious for like two minutes or something,” the Salt Lake City resident said. “My wife’s like, ‘I thought you were having a seizure. … You were completely unresponsive.’”
After the blackout, Leavitt says he went through one of the worst panic attacks of his life, lasting for hours.
Leavitt, Meldrum and Butterfield all relayed their experiences to Stenquist.
Last month, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration put out an alert about the substance, reporting that national poison control centers had documented 660 exposure cases related to Delta-8 products from Jan. 1 to July 31. The FDA had also gotten reports of reactions such as vomiting, hallucinations and blackouts.
‘What’s the other 5%?’
James, with the state’s cannabis program, acknowledges that there are questions about Delta-8 and the processes used to manufacture it.
“There are concerns with some of the cleanliness and the quality and the safety,” he said. “Which is why we think at the department of [agriculture] that there is a place for it in medical cannabis, because there are those controls on it. Versus it being an unregulated product that could be sold in any store to any person.”
The state, he added, has established a 95% purity requirement for Delta-8 products.
“But what’s that other 5%?” asks Olivia Kulander, chief science officer for the Boojam Group, a Utah medical cannabis and hemp processing company that has avoided Delta-8. “If you don’t know what it is, that’s the problem.”
Mixing CBD into acetic acid or bleach triggers a chemical conversion that leaves behind other substances, she said. Manufacturers can see these remnants using chromatographic analysis, she added, but often can’t identify what they are.
Smith of Zion Medicinal said his lab invested in a mass spectrometer that enabled them to identify leftovers from the Delta-8 production process. At this point, he says, the lab’s derived THC is so pure that there’s virtually nothing else to see.
The science officer acknowledged it’s “horrifying” to think of a processor cooking cheap CBD in hydrochloric acid and then just “pouring off the oil” to derive Delta-8 products.
In contrast, he says, his lab has spent significant time and money to avoid these harsh chemical processes. They source their CBD from Utah hemp farmers, who share everything from soil samples to plant genetics with Zion Medicinals, he added.
So Smith says he’s not at all worried about the safety of Delta-8 THC coming out of his lab.
“If you’re using good materials and proper processes, and you can account for the purity, so we know what almost all of it is, then it will have the effects we think it will have,” he said. “When you have adulterations … those can be very dangerous and are not healthy, especially for inhalation methods.”
In light of the safety concerns about Delta-8, Boojam Group has decided not to make it at all. Kulander said the company has also been trying to warn the state about the “potential dangers” of the substance for nearly a year now.
Putting these substances into vape cartridges for people to inhale is particularly concerning to Madeo, the cannabis pharmacist. When people eat a gummy, the digestive system at least offers some defense against contaminants, but the lungs are more vulnerable, she said.
Her employer, Beehive Farmacy, does carry a Delta-8 vape cartridge, she said. But Madeo, who was speaking to The Salt Lake Tribune as an individual and not on behalf of Beehive, doesn’t recommend these products, and she said people don’t buy them.
Although the products come with legally mandated testing reports, they aren’t detailed enough to reassure her that they’re free of impurities, and processors have never granted her requests to see a more detailed chromatographic analysis.
Some states — including Colorado — have acted to restrict Delta-8. But Madeo is among those who believe banning the substance isn’t necessarily the answer and that clearly marking products is a better alternative for the time being. Some items are clearly labeled as containing Delta-8 or Delta-9 manufactured in a lab, but others aren’t, she said.
James with the state’s agriculture department said officials have asked state lawmakers to pass a bill requiring clear labeling on products with derived or synthetic cannabinoids, so patients can make their own decisions about them.
Stenquist agrees with the need for better disclosure, arguing that the root problem is a national cannabis prohibition and that one solution is to offer solid information to patients while the U.S. transitions away into a more open and regulated marijuana market.
“The only way, I feel, to help patients until our government figures out what the hell it’s doing is to label this stuff,” she said. “Be transparent.”