CHAPEL HILL – As North Carolina’s General Assembly debates the legalization of medical marijuana, hemp farmers and retailers have already found a legal alternative: Delta-8 THC.

Otherwise known as “Weed’s Little Brother,” Delta-8 THC, or D-8, is the hottest cannabinoid on the market right now, especially in states like North Carolina, where marijuana remains illegal.

“We started selling our first Delta-8 brand in November, and it blew up,” said Tanya Durand, owner of The Hemp Store on Franklin Street in Chapel Hill, in an interview with WRAL TechWire. “The response has definitely been overwhelming.”

Not to be confused with the Delta COVID variant, Delta-8 is the less-potent, less well-known cousin of Delta-9 THC, the chief psychoactive compound in marijuana.

Yes, it gets you high. “Chill,” “mellow,” or “clear headed” are some of the words used to describe the effect. Some estimates put it at about 80% less strong than marijuana. Delta-8 does not produce the side effects of paranoia or anxiety.

Except unlike Delta-9, which comes from marijuana, Delta-8 is derived from hemp.

Here’s how Delta-8’s popularity is dividing NC’s fledgling hemp industry

Hemp is part of the same Cannabis family, shares a similar chemical structure, looks like marijuana to the untrained eye and has a skunky odor — but contains less than 0.3 percent of psychoactive tetrahydrocannabinol (THC).

Another big difference: unlike Delta-9, which is currently banned under federal law, Delta-8 is legal—in theory.

Thanks to a loophole in the 2018 Farm Bill that legalized hemp and its derivatives, proponents argue it’s just another form of hemp and lawful. It’s currently available in most states, including North Carolina, where the Delta-8 business is expanding.

“That’s been our biggest sales for this year, really,” said Durand.

The Hemp Store’s Tanya Durand working behind the “Flower Bar” in Chapel Hill

Smokable hemp

Almost overnight, vape shops are stocking shelves with Delta-8 gummies, tinctures and concentrates, ranging in price from $3 for a single serve to $40 for a bag of 20 gummies.

Yet hemp farmers, such as Nicole Burnette, the founder and CEO of the Queen Hemp Company based in Charlotte, are quick to point out, consuming Delta-8 products is not done primary to get high.  Rather, said Burnette, consumers are turning to Delta-8 products for help with a range of ailments, from anxiety and depression to insomnia, nausea, pain, even night terrors.

“Some of our biggest customers are veterans,” she said. “It’s really helped them coming back from PTSD, or other injuries. They’re tired of pharma and side effects, and they really do want plant-based wellness.”

‘Synthetic THC’?

Critics argue, however, it’s “synthetic THC” and therefore unlawful under the Controlled Substances Act.

“It’s a legal gray area,” said Rod Kight, an Asheville-based lawyer specializing in cannabis law. “Congress hasn’t addressed it. I’m not aware of any state legislators that have addressed it, and no court has addressed it.”

He represents dozens of hemp businesses in North Carolina and throughout the United States that are involved in the Delta-8 business.

He says the debate centers around how the cannabinoid is made. Because Delta-8 is found in trace amounts in cannabis and hemp plants, it must be manufactured in a laboratory.

First, CBD, which is also known as cannabidiol and found in abundance in the plant, is extracted and refined into an isolate. Then a CBD isolate is synthesized into Delta-8.

Debate on medical marijuana leaves NC hemp farmers, CBD owners, in waiting game

It’s just one of a dozen different cannabinoids that can now be isolated from the hemp plant. There’s the popular CBD, which doesn’t get you high, and some lesser-known ones like CBG, CBN, CBD, or Delta 10, all with their own attributes.

“Because of that conversion, this causes an open issue of law,” said Kight.

The federal Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) has, in a proposed rule last August, indirectly classified Delta-8 as a Schedule I controlled substance, which would make it federally illegal. That rule is not yet final.

Regardless, some states are already starting to crack down. North Dakota recently took steps to completely ban Delta-8, while others are considering measures to limit access.

In North Carolina, it remains to be seen how it will play out.

“I tell my clients, our interpretation is that this is lawful; but you have to know that this is an unresolved issue in the law, so it’s risky,” said Kight.

The Queen Hemp Company’s Delta-8 infused gummies

The surge in Delta-8 sales, meanwhile, comes as North Carolina considers legalizing medical marijuana.

North Carolina is one of 13 states where marijuana is illegal.

Last month, a proposed medical marijuana law for North Carolina cleared its first hurdle after a Senate committee approved bipartisan legislation.  It was proposed by one of the highest-ranking Republicans in the North Carolina legislature, Brunswick County Sen. Bill Rabon, a cancer survivor.

Rabon did not answer or return multiple calls to comment on the new bill or the status of Delta-8.

Senate Bill 711 still must pass through three committees before reaching the Senate floor and would still have to be considered by the House.

“With the national interest in cannabis at an all-time high, it remains to be seen what will happen with Delta-8 THC law at the federal level,” said Paul Adams, North Carolina Agriculture’s industrial hemp manager who leads the state’s pilot program.  “Should those laws change, then I expect that the Delta-8 THC market will expand or contract accordingly.”

Waiting game

Most cannabis advocates say they are encouraged by the progress on the medical marijuana front, but there’s still a long way to go.

In the meantime, The Hemp Store’s Durand says she’s working to re-introduce the hemp plant to the public.

“After using my first bottle of Charlotte’s Web [a popular CBD brand], my life completely changed,” said Durand, a mother of three who battled postpartum depression and crippling migraines. “Within three weeks, my migraine was gone; the anxiety and depression followed.”

Still, she’d also like to see more regulation when it comes to Delta-8.

“I’ve noticed a lot of brands, even very well-known brands, claim that their product is one thing; and then we’ll take it to the lab, and it’s completely different,” she says. “It’s counterproductive; you’re making the whole industry look bad.”

Sean Parekh, owner of Cannabliss Dispensary

A few blocks down at the other end of Franklin Street is Cannabliss Dispensary.

It opened this January after operating online for roughly a year.

On most days, a steady stream of customers can be seen lining up with masks to get inside the 400-square-foot store to purchase its range of Delta-8 products—like “Not Ya Son’s Weed” chocolate bars and other edibles.

“I tell our staff we have a social responsibility to do this.  We’re helping people,” said owner Sean Parekh, 26, who also suffers from depression. “I turned my whole life around. If I can use this business to make change and show these medical potentials, I don’t care what lines I’m going to push.”

But he’s also looking ahead.

“If it’s not obvious, I want to be in a prime position to basically take the market when medical marijuana becomes legal,” he said.