Legalizing Hemp Changed Everything

CBD, Delta-8 THC, and THCA, allowing American-grown hemp made a world of difference in how we think about weed.
Hemp
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We all have those conversations that stick with us throughout the years. I’ve been friends with Jimi Devine for almost a decade now, and while you’ll mostly see us laughing together while puffing on a blunt, I remember one time in 2018 when we disagreed about a piece of cannabis policy. Since I have this platform to voice a weedy opinion, I figure why not do the most petty thing possible and tell Jimi why he was wrong all these years later? Can you hear me laughing aloud in this otherwise quiet room? I can. 

Our argument centered on the 2018 Farm Bill, which legalized hemp in America. At the time, I thought the news was earth-shattering and would forever change the face of cannabis as we knew it. Jimi disagreed, and while I don’t remember his exact talking points against me (isn’t that the beauty of me writing this instead of him?), I’m here in 2023 to say I was absolutely correct. 

The reason legalizing hemp was able to change so much about how we think of cannabis was that it established how we define hemp. While hemp and cannabis are the same plant, the Farm Bill used a conservative threshold, 0.3% THC, to separate hemp plants from cannabis plants. Plants with less than 0.3 % THC are legal hemp; above that line, the same plants become defined as federally illegal cannabis plants. 

The cannabinoid THC is only one of many chemical elements that make up the cannabis plant. Because hemp was made legal and was only defined by its composition of THC, the 2018 Farm Bill brought about a frenzy of development surrounding another cannabinoid, CBD. 

The CBD rush went way too far (I swear I received a pitch for CBD blue jeans and heard a CBD ad on the radio in the same tone and cadence of a Monster Truck rally), and although it’s peaked, it will never be completely done. The idea that you can receive some of the medicinal benefits of cannabis without the “high” associated with THC is very enticing to many people. 

Don’t get me wrong, CBD has many medical promises. When I last spoke with Raphael Mechoulam, the Israeli chemist who first identified THC, he told me he was looking into CBD’s ability to affect bone density for conditions such as osteoarthritis. Mechoulam pioneered cannabis research and believed that understanding the active compounds in cannabis and how they relate to an endogenous system we all have, the endocannabinoid system, would someday have great significance in modern medicine. I absolutely agree with this, but I also think adding CBD oil to fried tater-tots—a dish I once saw on the menu in Austin, Texas—isn’t the “healthy” choice it’s made out to be. One of the things Mecholam was also a proponent of was the entourage effect. According to another noted cannabis scientist, Ethan Russo, the entourage effect suggests that “one molecule is unlikely to match the therapeutic and even industrial potential of Cannabis itself as a phytochemical factory.” That means that the medicinal benefits of cannabis work best when the chemicals in the plant work together rather than in isolation.

Another nuance in the discussion of CBD’s medical benefits is that the CBD industry is unregulated, meaning a product that says it has 10 mg of CBD might not even have any CBD. A 2022 study showed that nearly half the CBD products researchers studied were mislabeled. 

First CBD, Then Delta-8

While we usually just say THC, the cannabinoid that gets us high is more specifically delta-9 THC. The 2018 Farm Bill said plants would be defined as hemp if they had less than .03% of delta-9 THC. This led to another loophole to develop alternative cannabinoids, including a chemical analog of delta-9 THC, delta-8 THC. 

Delta-8 THC products are now available all over the county. I say products because while delta-8 is produced naturally in the cannabis plant, it’s only in small amounts. Products containing delta-8 are created through a chemical conversion of CBD.  

According to The New York Times, Google searches for delta-8 grew by more than 850% in the United States between 2020 and 2021. 

Research on delta-8 THC is scarce, but a 1973 study shows that delta-8 THC is about two-thirds as potent as delta-9 THC and has similar effects. 

Synthetic Cannabinoids 

Synthetic cannabinoids, such as THC-O, are also experiencing a boom due to the definition of hemp in the 2018 Farm Bill. The cannabis plant does not naturally produce these cannabinoids, and these are the products that draw the most concern regarding potential adverse health effects. In 2022, the California Cannabis Industry Association published a white paper examining “the dangers of a national, unregulated, hemp-derived intoxicating cannabinoid market.” 

“You have cannabinoids that are organically produced by the plant. They just might be concentrated in the extraction, like THCV is a good example of that,” one of the report’s authors, Tiffany Devitt, explains. “And you have cannabinoids that go through a little bit of processing like delta-8, which typically takes CBD, concentrates it, and then takes it through a process of using solvents and catalysts to change it. And then you have what I consider to be fully synthesized cannabinoids, which either don’t occur in the natural plant, like THC-O, or occur in the plant in such minute quantities that there’s not really evidence—toxicological evidence—that they are safe because no one has been ingesting them in meaningful quantities.”

Cannabinoids interact with receptors, CB1 and CB2, within our bodies. Delta-9 THC is a partial agonist, which means it can only stimulate or block the receptors so much. Devitt is concerned about the potential adverse health effects of synthetic cannabinoids because they are agonists. 

“You can think of those cannabinoids, it’s kind of like the dimmer switch, and if it’s only partial, no matter how much you take, there’s only so far that you’re going to be able to stimulate or block that receptor,” Devitt explains. “The difference between a partial agonist and an agonist is a dimmer switch that turns it up a little bit brighter or a little bit darker versus making it blindly bright or pitch black.”

While THCP is a cannabinoid found in small amounts in the plant, so it is not technically synthetic, it is an agonist that researchers report is 33 times stronger than delta-9 THC. 

The newest development in playing the “it’s legal hemp” game is THCA. THCA is the acidic precursor of THC. For THC to become “activated” it needs to be heated, which in cannabis means either smoking it or baking it for edibles. 

When hemp was legalized, it opened the cannabis seed market because seeds don’t contain delta-9 THC.

Cannabis flowers also don’t contain delta-9 THC. They have THCA, which isn’t converted into THC unless it’s heated through decarboxylation. Eating a raw cannabis bud won’t get you high. If you juice cannabis buds and leaves you’ll get THCA, which has shown health benefits in terms of anti-inflammatory effects but is not psychoactive. 

The hemp regulatory loophole game now includes flowers labeled as THCA, and the flowers are THCA. All the weed you’ve ever smoked was composed of the cannabinoid THCA before you lit up your joint or bowl. 

There has yet to be a crackdown on THCA flowers available in states that do not yet have a legal framework for cannabis, but that might be coming. There have been discussions to refine the definition of hemp in America. If that doesn’t happen, the legalization of hemp also legalized all cannabis, and I think that’s a pretty big deal. 

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  1. Yeah so funny thing thca isn’t the only thing in flower, in fact most flowers contain over .3% of D9 thc, only certain genetics and growing conditions/requirements will yield usda compliant Hemp (sorry basement trappers you guys dont make the cut)

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