Delta-8 and Delta-9 are two compounds in the hemp plant that have very similar effects. And as they should— they’re nearly identical! The only chemical difference between these two is the location of a double bond. But while these compounds have so many similarities, their history, use, and legal status are incredibly different.
Let’s take a look at these two nearly identical cannabinoids and see how their histories relate to their use today!
The hemp species used by the cannabis and cannabinoid industries is Cannabis sativa. Sometimes this is crossed with Cannabis indica, but whatever the exact genetic makeup of these plants, they naturally produce a relatively high amount of Delta-9 THC. Botanists have bred different strains to increase or decrease the content of various cannabinoids within these plants, which has led to the creation of legal hemp plants. These plants’ natural resins contain less than 0.3% Delta-9 THC and are therefore completely federally legal in the United States.
While legal hemp and cannabis are the same thing from a scientific standpoint, this modification has led to changes in their legal status. Legal hemp is the primary source of CBD and other cannabinoids, including Delta-8. Cannabis is the primary source of Delta-9.
Processing Delta-9 THC is relatively easy since it’s found in such abundance naturally. But that’s not true about Delta-8. Delta-8 only occurs naturally in tiny amounts. It’s a very labor-intensive process to extract it in its naturally occurring form, and so for years it was only ever extracted for experimental scientific studies— not for anybody’s personal use.
That all changed when it was discovered that you could extract Delta-8 from CBD and other more abundant cannabinoids. Now, Delta-8 is everywhere because for the first time it’s readily available through chemistry! Hemp-derived Delta-8 remains exceedingly rare. Without a different processing method, it’s unlikely that Delta-8 would have ever hit the personal market.
Delta-9 THC is the most abundant naturally occurring compound in the cannabis plant. There is no record of who discovered it because humans have been enjoying its use for thousands of years. However, it was first isolated and identified along with Delta-8 THC in 1941 by Roger Adams and his team at the University of Illinois. This isolation didn’t actually use the plant itself, but rather synthesized it in the laboratory.
THC was first isolated in the cannabis plant itself in 1964 by Dr. Raphael Mechoulam and his colleagues at Israel's Weizmann Institute of Science. Mechoulam and his team went on to further study the cannabis plant and are responsible for a great deal of the research that has been done on Delta-8 since its isolation.
It wasn’t until 1974 that research into the properties of Delta-8 began. Even today there are fewer studies looking at Delta-8 than there are Delta-9 THC or CBD. However, in 1995, Dr. Mechoulam’s interest in Delta-8 and its antiemetic effects on pediatric cancer patients led to more interest in this cannabinoid.
Stick with us for a moment while we talk about the science behind how Delta-8 and Delta-9 are named. Delta-8 and Delta-9 are both tetrahydrocannabinols. This means that they are naturally occurring acids found in the cannabis plant with four (tetra) additions of hydrogen atoms (hydro).
The “delta” number refers to the location of a double bond with the hydrogen. Delta-8 THC has a double bond on the 8th chain of the carbon base; Delta-9 has it on the 9th chain.
So why is knowing this difference important? It’s there to show you just how similar these two are, and help explain some of the similarities between their effects! But even though these two substances are almost identical, that tiny difference is enough to cause major differences in their effects.
So what’s the difference between Delta-8 and Delta-9 on your body? Both of these cannabinoids will get you high. However, the high from Delta-8 is said to be about half as intense and usually more body-sensation heavy than the more heady high of Delta-9. The high from Delta-8 is also usually more prolonged than the high from the same amount of Delta-9.
Delta-8 and Delta-9 have really similar medical effects as well. There’s evidence that both have antiemetic, appetite stimulant, anti-inflammatory, anti-anxiety, and anticonvulsant properties. We do know more about the medical uses of Delta-9 THC because it was previously so difficult to extract Delta-8. Since the passing of the 2018 Farm Bill that legalized all hemp products with less than a 0.3% Delta-9 content, we can expect to see more Delta-8 research in the near future and hopefully come to a better understanding of this powerful cannabinoid!