Updated on August 27, 2021.
Medical content reviewed by Dr. Joseph Rosado, MD, M.B.A, Chief Medical Officer
Not all THC is equal? For many people who use cannabis therapeutically (or recreationally), a high is a high, right? Well, it turns out that there are variants in THC. And the kind you are most familiar with from your local dispensary is Delta-9-THC. But are Delta-8 dominant strains a better choice?
Your convention Delta-9-THC is found in cannabis plants. It is also found in hemp. But back in the 1970s, there was a big research push to learn more about THC. The U.S. National Cancer Institute tested CBD, and both Delta-9 and Delta-8 THC on mice. The purpose of the study was to discover whether cannabinoids suppressed the immune system.
In 1974 researchers discovered that rather than harming the mice, Delta-8 THC had cancer-fighting properties. In certain conditions, it could kill cancer cells. Both Delta-9 and Delta-8 THC were used in the experiments. In 1975 however, further studies revealed that Delta-8 THC could also reduce cancerous tumors.
One of the most exciting findings was that it reduced Lewis lung adenocarcinoma growth. And that the cannabis did not have to be vaporized; it worked with administered drops. However, when the researchers tested isolated (or low THC) CBD doses, it did not impact cancer cells.
Since then, there have been numerous global studies to figure out how cannabinoids can fight cancer. Because of the growing clinical evidence, cancer is one of the qualifying health conditions listed for medical cannabis programs. But it doesn’t stop there. The Delta-8 THC may also prove to be a better choice for adolescents with epilepsy and other conditions.
Through decades of research, we still do not know everything there is to know about cannabis. There are three reasons why more research is needed into the treatment potential of THC. Particularly as more states legalize medical and adult-use programs and more countries make it legal to consume.
Cannabis Products Today Have a Much Higher Potency
Tolerance has everything to do with the kind of ‘high’ you get from THC. If you have never smoked or consumed cannabis before, you are likely to have a low tolerance. However, if you have mastered the ability to roll a joint since college and never parted ways with weed, it can take a higher potency. Both to feel the psychoactive effects and potentially, to see some of the therapeutic benefits.
For example, in a recreational state, smoking the cannabis that your mom uses may give you a “lunchbox letdown.” You could find yourself waiting and waiting for that “ahhh” moment. Instead of “puff puff pass,” you may have to pack a bowl or smoke the whole joint to feel it.
The human body develops a tolerance to any kind of drug. This includes tobacco and alcohol. There is a reason why addictions accelerate. It takes more alcohol to get an alcoholic drunk. It takes more nicotine for someone who smokes 1-2 packs per day to feel satisfied.
Pot is pot, right? Well, not really. As early as the 1990s, cannabis sold had an average THC level of 4%. The hybrid strains that have been developed in America since then have a much greater potency. Cannabis now averages about 9.6% THC. You are likely to see more 15% potencies in your local dispensary and 20% to 23% strains. And the ever-popular concentrates for dabbing can exceed 50% THC.
Stronger THC May Negatively Impact Brain Development for Adolescents
More potent cannabis is good news for patients who use it for symptom management. For instance, if you live with chronic pain, you don’t want to have to take 12 drops from a tincture before it starts working. Nor do you want to have to smoke a whole joint before you achieve pain relief.
A stronger THC level means “less is more.” Patients can consume a small amount without becoming impaired but realize the analgesic (pain-relieving) benefits. That is a good thing. For people with mobility issues, it reduces the risk of falling, for example—a concern for seniors prone to fall injuries.
In 1974 Professor Mechoulam found that Delta-8 was like ‘rocket fuel’ for the immune system. And he may have been the first to realize some of the immune-boosting benefits. Professor Mechoulam focused research on children aged 3-13 years in treatment for hematologic cancers.
Some people want the wellness potential of cannabinoids without the intoxicating effects. This is particularly warranted for pediatric care applications. Children who have medical cannabis treatments should be provided with the lowest dose (and non-intoxicating) cannabis possible.
Adolescent clinical studies suggest an increased risk of developing psychosis with the use of cannabis. Children who have not finished brain development may develop neurotoxic reactions to THC. Early use of cannabis among children has also been linked to reducing memory functioning and learning impairments. And other studies link adolescent use with increased rates of clinical anxiety.
The Highs and Lows of Delta-9 and Delta-8 THC
If getting elevated, leaving behind your stress (and many symptoms) sounds about right, then Delta-9 THC may be your first choice. And like discussed, the good news is that cannabis that has dominant Delta-9 THC isn’t hard to find. It is literally the easiest to find and buy at your local dispensary.
Your average cannabis plant has 120 different cannabinoids. But only two of them can create the psychoactive effects (Delta-9 and Delta-8 THC). While researchers are not 100% sure how it works, THC triggers a release and uptake of norepinephrine. It’s a neurotransmitter that can help release adrenaline, which creates a feeling of euphoria, And then another chemical reaction happens as adrenaline levels drop and you get sleepy.
Do you ever feel like you have “the dumbs” after you toke? While you are smoking a strain that is high in Delta-9 THC, even reruns of WEEDS are going to be riveting. You are not really focused, however more like staring at the colors on your television. It impairs critical and complex thinking. And later, Delta-9 cannabis can also ramp up your anxiety.
People who prefer cannabis/Delta-8 do not feel like they have lost control. After they smoke or take their tincture, or nosh on an edible, they’ll feel it taking effect. But Delta-8 does make you feel intoxicated. It is a more alert (but still relaxed) and clear-headed high. Which is nicer because nothing is more frustrating than being unable to figure out which ear your airpod belongs in. The struggle is real.
Reduce Risk of Mental Health Problems with Delta-8 THC?
In adults who consume high potency THC daily, it can create changes to the brain. Over time, THC can cause a reduction in the brain tissues (gray matter) of the prefrontal cortex. But only in chronic users. But interestingly, at the same time, THC seems to increase the density of connections in the other areas of the brain. According to some studies, the volume of tissue goes down, but this increase in neuron density seems to negate most (or all) of the neurotoxicity.
With Delta-9 THC, some researchers think that psychosis happens when the gray matter is reduced. But no increase in neuron density occurs. And reactions to THC vary for many people. For some, it can be intoxicating and relaxing. For others, it can cause anxiety and paranoia. In extreme cases, Delta-9 THC can cause psychosis or a psychotic break. And researchers are not sure why. But they know this problem rarely occurs with Delta-8 THC.
This means that Delta-8 THC may be safer to use while treating patients with mental health disorders. Lower dose Delta-8 cannabis could also create tinctures for children and adolescents as a safer alternative.