Updated: Jun 7
I was at the gym late last week when a sixty-plus-year-old acquaintance came over to where I was bench pressing as if he was on a mission. "Hey buddy", Roland said, "how's life treatin' ya?" I responded that all was good when he launched into a diatribe about living a "natural life". Roland went on to explain that he was taking a number of supplements, dropped a few pounds, and had been attending the gym regularly.
"Guy's our age need to stay in condition," Roland stated emphatically. "Taking fish oils, and stay away from those GMO (genetically modified organism) foods! No good for you!" After going on for several minutes, he then dropped this bombshell, "the best thing I ever did was to start smokin' weed and using CBD oil." This statement after a nearly endless lecture on treating your body as a shrine and eating organic foods.
"You do realize that a good deal of today's marijuana has been genetically altered, right," I said. He immediately went on the defensive about his pot smoking and then launched into a CBD lecture, then letting me in on a 'little secret' - he has been using a substance called delta-8, purchasing it from a small gas station/cigarette shop, that he called "CBD oil on steroids." Although I had heard about this in passing, Roland piqued my interest and I decided to learn more about it.
The Appearance of delta-8-THC
It appears that this little-known substance has been selling like hotcakes at convenience stores, smoke shops, and corner markets since it began appearing on their shelves. Delta-8-THC is the cannabinoid cousin of delta-9-THC, the molecule most associated with the "high" caused by smoking or ingesting marijuana products. In the past, synthesizing delta-8-THC from the plant itself was a costly project, but doing so from an existing product, CBD oil, has been a lucrative venture for producers and something the consumer can do rather easily in their homes.
As stated earlier, delta-8-THC is a cannabinoid, one of more than a hundred or more that can be found in the cannabis plant. This molecule was discovered over a hundred years ago but little is known about it to this point, but that is changing now with technology and the rapid growth of the cannabis industry, where marketers are squeezing every dime they can out of the cannabis plant. The rush to market of delta-8-THC has meant that its safety profile or the long-term effects of its use on the human body remains unclear, but what is obvious is that money can be made and lots of it.
According to users, like my gym friend Roland, delta-8-THC provides a "more relaxing, pot light kind of a high." Delta-8-THC can be made by simply mixing over-the-counter and readily available CBD oil with battery acid, pool chemicals, or even household vinegar, and by following a few basic steps, this product can be produced at home, earning itself the nickname - "the bathtub gin of the cannabis world."
There are many concerns about the availability of delta-8-THC over the counter from the ages of the users to the relatively inexpensive cost of the cheap high. But the main concern, according to medical professionals, is that the lack of oversight on delta-8-THC's production may result in the presence of heavy metals - like lead- and other unexpected intoxicants showing up in these products - not to mention unknown interactions with medications, a concern for older adults who are more likely to be taking multiple prescription drugs.
In early 2019, we did a blog about the over-the-counter sales of CBD oil called "CBD Oil and Seniors - A Miracle Cure From The Corner Store?" At that time, we received pushback from many who claimed that CBD oil had helped them, but the point of that blog was not in questioning the efficacy of the product, rather the fact that CBD oil sold in gas stations and corner stores was unregulated and may or may not had been safely manufactured. We also had concerns with other nefarious uses of CBD oil - and we are now seeing one of these uses - the making of delta-8-THC. We told the story about a similar product with similar hype, called DMSO, that hit the market some four decades ago with some frightening unintended consequences. Let's look briefly at the story of DMSO and you will see those similarities.
The DMSO Craze of the 1970s
DMSO, Dimethyl sulfoxide, was first discovered in 1866 by a Russian chemist as a by-product of papermaking. In the 1940s, this chemical was developed commercially and used as an additive in antifreeze, paint, and household cleaners. By the late 1970s, DMSO was being touted as a way to manage cancer symptoms and pain, heal tumors, prevent joint pain, and was said to have “magical” anti-inflammatory properties -- among other "miraculous" medical uses. And, like CBD oil, DMSO did have some legitimate medical applications.
DMSO was an oily substance that was rubbed on the skin (and some people even ingested it) and within moments of applying this substance, a strong and pungent garlic odor would be detectable on the user’s breath that lasted for hours. The most remarkable property of DMSO was its ability to immediately penetrate the skin and transport any chemicals present into the body, including drugs, dyes, pollutants, and even perfumes - thus taxing the liver.
Like CBD oil, DMSO was unregulated and started showing up in health food stores, convenience stores, gyms, gas stations, and any place where there was a high volume of consumer traffic. Newspaper and magazine reporters wrote articles on the "curative" properties of the substance and anyone who raised concerns about its properties was shouted down and called a naysayer.
The DMSO for sale at retail outlets was relatively high priced, so those in the know began buying it at hardware stores where it was an ingredient in industrial degreasers and much cheaper when purchased in that form. It soon gained cult status and was being used by older adults for joint pain and became the sweetheart of athletes, from the high school level to professional sports stars.
At that time, I was active as a competitive powerlifter when the DMSO craze hit the training facility. One of the biggest problems facing most athletes who trained with heavy weights was joint pain and inflammation of the tendons. The most popular medication in the gym at the time was Butazolidine (called Bute), a powerful non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug that was extremely effective in treating fever, pain, and inflammation in the body and was so good that horse trainers used it for their prized racing stock. Butazolidin was also a go-to medication for older adults with arthritis at the time.
Unfortunately, Butazolidine was also extremely toxic and like today’s opioids, it came under scrutiny for the number of prescriptions written for it. By the 1980s, this drug was no longer approved for use in the United States. Enter DMSO and its transdermal property.
Because Butazolidin disappeared, athletes began mixing DMSO with other less powerful anti-inflammatories and applied it directly to the body part that was injured. Seniors began using it as a way to control joint pain and also mixed it with over-the-counter medications in order to deliver the punch they needed to deal with the pain they were experiencing.
But as promising as DMSO was, serious side effects began to emerge. At least two competitive powerlifters I knew became extremely ill and were diagnosed with toxic hepatitis, an inflammation of the liver caused by certain substances to which it is exposed. Toxic hepatitis can develop within hours or days of exposure to the toxin. It can also result in permanent damage to the liver and in some cases, liver failure can occur.
But it was just not athletes who suffered illnesses from DMSO use, older adults began experiencing problems as well. DMSO was found to be synergistic (increased the desired effect of a medication) when combined with some drugs including heart medicines, blood thinners, steroids, and sedatives. Those with liver, kidney, or heart conditions, diabetes, and asthma were strongly advised not to use this substance.
As the negatives of DMSO came to light, its popularity began to fall off but was still used and widely available. Then came the news of Gloria Ramirez, who became known as the Toxic Lady.
DMSO and the Toxic Lady
It was 1994 when the 31-year-old Ramirez was rushed to the emergency room at the General Hospital in Riverside, California. Her symptoms were puzzling to the ER staff – a rapid heartbeat, drop in blood pressure and she was incoherent. Attempts to stabilize her were unsuccessful. When medical personnel removed her clothing to apply a defibrillator, they noticed that her body was covered with an oily substance. They then smelled a garlicky odor on her breath. When blood was drawn, a strong smell of ammonia was detected, and small particles of a manila-colored substance were seen floating in her blood sample.
Then, the attending medical staff began to have problems. One by one, they began to feel sick, and some lost consciousness. A few even reported being temporarily paralyzed. It appeared that Ramirez, who had recently been diagnosed with late-stage cervical cancer, had covered her body with DMSO in an attempt to control the pain she was experiencing. Sadly, she died later that night. But why would DMSO cause the problems it did for this patient and why did the medical staff have such a reaction to her? Was this a case of mass hysteria? Apparently not.
When doctors researched what had happened in this case, what they found was shocking. It appeared that when DMSO was exposed to oxygen, as it was when the patient was being treated, it changed the chemical structure of DMSO from dimethyl sulfone to dimethyl sulfate, an extremely toxic chemical. Dimethyl sulfate’s effects on the human body include destruction of cells in the eyes, lungs, and mouth as well as convulsions, delirium, and paralysis. This certainly explained the reactions in the emergency room that night but also left them wondering how many people using oxygen and DMSO experienced similar damage.
The bottom line, then like today, miracles cannot be purchased at the local service station.
Is delta-8-THC CBD Oil on Steroids?
Well, despite Roland's hyperbolic claim, delta-8-THC is not the same as CBD oil even though it is derived from it. As a result, those who take more than one dose at a time can cause themselves harm. In recent months, delta-8-THC has been causing a stir in a number of state poison control centers and with the major issue being that medical professionals are unsure how to treat its victims.
At the West Virginia Poison Center, its director, Dr. Tariq Y. Scharman, expressed concern about this substance because it is unregulated and not required to have an accurate ingredient label. "These products are not regulated so there is no assurance that the label is correct. Fruit flavored gummies containing drugs can easily be mistaken for candy by young children,” he stated, leading to poisoning.
What about the Roland's of the world, those baby-boomers who carry their use of street drugs well into their senior years? As we said earlier, we don't know much about delta-8-THC, but we do know that delta-9-THC does interact with a high number of prescription medications, many of which are widely prescribed to seniors. They include:
Blood Pressure Medications
Blood Sugar Medications
In all, recent research has identified 57 medications that interact with cannabinoid products and another 139 that may interact with them but at a lower risk level (see the list here).
Those who are promoting the use of delta-8-THC are quick to point out that the research that led to the knowledge of the interactions with the drugs listed above came from "research conducted on delta-9-THC, not delta-8-THC", further claiming that "delta-8-THC is weaker than delta-9-THC."
Further, delta-9-THC has also been shown to have a negative effect on the cardiovascular system and has been implicated in heart disease as well as diabetes, stroke, and other physical health conditions. So it really isn't a far stretch to say that delta-8 products must be used with an abundance of caution, especially for older adults.
A Cheap and Legal High for All?
So the question is, should any over-the-counter substance that has psychoactive properties be sold to anyone no matter their age? After all, we can't sell alcohol or cigarettes to anyone under the age of 21, so why should delta-8-THC be any different? Well, it's all in the regulations.
When a reporter asked the FDA for information, they referred her to the DEA, which, she wrote, wouldn’t go into detail about delta-8-THC because it said it’s currently in the rule-making process. “There is a lot to learn about the impacts of marijuana and its chemical constituents,” the agency told her.
And just to make the point, the U.S. Cannabis Council said it tested 16 Delta-8 products from vendors across the U.S. and found that all but one of them exceeded the allowable level of THC. On average, they had more than 10 times the legal limit. Seven of the samples also exceeded limits on metals such as copper, chromium, or nickel. According to Bloomberg News, the Council's report states that delta-8-THC, "represents a major consumer safety issue, posing dangers greater than the ‘vape crisis’ of 2019.”
The Effects of delta-8-THC
The side effects of delta-8-THC are many and vary widely among its users. Again, age, body size, and current medications seem to determine how this product affects the user. Here are the most common problematic side-effects of delta-8 THC use:
Dry mouth - Delta 8 can cause temporary dry mouth in some users. This does not mean your body is dehydrated, but rather that your salivary glands have reduced saliva production
Dry eyes - This is a temporary effect and will wear off when the cannabinoids cease to be active in the body. Dry eyes tend to appear red and feel uncomfortable for some users.
Anxiety - Despite the claims that delta-8-THC reduces anxiety, it has produced this undesired effect in users and may exacerbate anxiety in those who already have this condition.
Grogginess - This feeling can come with the strong urge to sleep. Common other symptoms include mild lightheadedness, fatigue, and a foggy brain.
The body high - Delta-8-THC has become known for causing body highs and can be quite intense. Common symptoms of a body high include being overly aware of bodily sensations, which can lead to anxiety attacks, being physically frozen which makes it difficult to move, and a feeling of numbness.
The mind high - This is a feeling of being either too much in or out of your head, depending on how your body particularly reacts to the delta-8-THC. Again, the effect on the mind of delta-8-THC users is different for everyone and can be quite frightening for some. Poison control centers have reported users having bad trips and some even presenting with suicidal thoughts.
Inability to function - Because delta-8-THC can cause an intense body or mind high, it ruins your concentration and makes it hard to coordinate yourself.
Inability to drive - Delta--THC8 can make it difficult to drive, due to the possible intense mind and body highs. Hopefully, we don't need to explain the dangers of driving under the influence.
Interactions with other substances - as stated before, little is known about the effects of delta-8-THC on other prescription medications, but we do know how delta-9-THC interacts with them, especially those taken by older adults. So assume that similar interactions are possible.
Although delta-8-THC is less psychoactive than delta-9-THC, it still has properties that can cause significant toxicity in its users and a mild "high" resulting in impairment in many activities. Poison control centers have reported a marked increase in patients presenting with reactions from using delta-8-THC ranging from intense nausea to extreme psychic distress. One center has reported children who ingested gummies containing delta-8-THC developing sedation, slowed breathing, low blood pressure, and slowed heart rate, requiring admission to an intensive care unit.
The other problem is the contaminants present in this product as a result of the synthesizing process. Although larger companies use somewhat safer methods, those making it at home with CBD oil can lead to high levels of toxins like lead, sulfates, nitrates, and even chlorine.
To date, more than a dozen states have placed restrictions on the sale of delta-8-THC products including Rhode Island, and Massachusetts is on its way to doing the same thing. Limiting the sale of over-the-counter delta-8-THC products is a great step but it does not deter those from purchasing CBD oil and making their own homemade and possibly toxic brew.
And for baby boomers like Roland who continue to carry on their party lifestyle well into retirement, remember, little is known about delta-8-THC and because of this, the safety of this product remains questionable.