Use of Legal 'Delta-8-THC' Is Rising Among Teens - Is it Safe?

By   |  March 13, 2024

By Carole Tanzer Miller HealthDay Reporter  |  Copyright © 2024 HealthDay. All rights reserved.

TUESDAY, March 12, 2024 (HealthDay News) -- They're cheap, easy to buy and now new research shows they have become the buzz of choice for American teens.

Delta-8-THC products, which include gummies and vapes, are legal in 22 states and Washington, D.C. There is no federal minimum age requirement for buying them, and they are sold in gas stations, chain drug stores and online. 

That has made the products a marketing magnet for teens: The new survey finds that among more than 2,000 U.S. 12th graders, 11.4% had used delta-8-THC in the past year. Southern and Midwestern states had even higher rates, as did states that have not legalized adult use of recreational marijuana.

"Considering that delta-8-THC has only been on the market since 2018, the fact that we're seeing more than 11% of youth using it is concerning," said study author Alyssa Harlow, of the University of Southern California (USC) Institute for Addiction Science.

"It's evidence that we should be paying attention to these products, particularly in areas where we saw an even higher prevalence," she added in a USC news release.

Typically derived from hemp, delta-8-THC is not as potent as its cousin delta-9-THC, which is derived from the marijuana plant. However, it still can make users feel high.

Because the substance has chemical similarities to delta-9-THC — which causes the marijuana "high" — scientists are concerned it may pose similar health risks. In particular, they are worried about effects on brain development and behavior, addiction and accidental overdose. 

In addition, because delta-8-THC isn't regulated, they noted there are few safeguards to prevent the presence of impurities and toxins and no warning labels or ingredient lists. It also means the products can be marketed to youth.

"Time and time again, we see the same pattern. When a new addictive drug hits the market and is commercialized, youth are the first to be affected if public health protections are not in place," senior study author Adam Matthew Leventhal, executive director of the USC Institute for Addiction Science, said in a USC news release. "We saw this with nicotine e-cigarettes and should not let history repeat itself with delta-8-THC or the other hemp products."

Until this new study, there had been no nationwide estimates of how common delta-8-THC use is, he noted.

The new estimates come from the 2023 Monitoring the Future Survey, a classroom-based poll that tracks youth substance use. It includes students from every region of the country. Their answers are weighted to reflect the gender, race and parental education levels of the U.S. population.

Of the 12th graders surveyed:

  • 11.4% reported using delta-8-THC in the past year. Of those, 35.4% used it 10 times or more

  • 30.4% reported using marijuana

  • 8% used delta-8-THC in states where adult marijuana use was legal, compared to 14% in states where it was banned

  • 5.7% of youth used delta-8-THC in states that regulate it, compared to 14.4% in states without regulations

Rates of use varied by region. Five percent of youths in Western states used it, as did just over 10% in the Northeast; 14.3% in the South; and 14.6% in the Midwest.

The findings were published March 12 in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Harlow said the findings provide early evidence that regulating delta-8-THC might help lower use among youth. Restrictions could include packaging and labeling requirements, a minimum purchase age, limits on where it can be sold or required testing of products for contaminants, she suggested.

Researchers described the study as "an initial pulse check" on delta-8-THC use and added that more investigation is needed.

Dr. Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), agreed.

"We don't know enough about these drugs, but we see that they are already extremely accessible to teens," she said in a NIDA news release. 

"Cannabis use in general has been associated with negative impacts on the adolescent brain, so we must pay attention to the kinds of cannabis products teens are using, educate young people about potential risks and ensure that treatment for cannabis use disorder and adequate mental health care is provided to those who needed it," Volkow added.

More information

The U.S. Food & Drug Administration has more about Delta-8 THC.

SOURCES: Keck School of Medicine of USC, news release, March 2024; National Institute on Drug Abuse, news release, March 12, 2024