Teen Use Of Delta-8 THC Is Higher In States Without Legal Marijuana, New Study Published By American Medical Association Finds

Teen Use Of Delta-8 THC Is Higher In States Without Legal Marijuana, New Study Published By American Medical Association Finds

Teen use of delta-8 THC is higher in states where marijuana is illegal, according to a new study published on Tuesday in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA). When it comes to adolescent consumption of cannabis itself, “there were no differences in marijuana use by state-level cannabis policies,” the researchers concluded, contrary to legalization opponents’ oft-repeated claim that the reform will lead to increased teen use.

Overall, just over eleven percent of high-school seniors self-reported using cannabis products containing delta-8 THC in the past year, the study found. Use of the largely unregulated psychoactive cannabinoid “is appreciable among US adolescents,” authors wrote, “and is higher in states without marijuana legalization or existing Δ8-THC regulations.”

In states where marijuana remains prohibited, 14 percent of high-school seniors said they had used a delta-8 product in the past year, the federally funded research found. Where marijuana was legal, that figure was 7 percent.

Local decisions to regulate delta-8 THC were linked to even lower use rates among adolescents. In states with no delta-8 rules, 14.4 percent of participants had used the cannabinoid within the past year compared to just 5.7 percent in states with delta-8 regulations.

“Given the federal policy context and divergent regional and policy correlates of Δ8-THC and marijuana use found in this study,” the report says, “Δ8-THC may be marketed to and/or used by adolescents as a psychoactive cannabis substitute in places in which adult-use marijuana is illegal.”

“Δ8-THC use prevalence was lower in states with adult-use marijuana legalization vs those without.”

Along with the study, JAMA published an editorial about the new findings meant to “assist health professionals in advocating for stronger regulatory oversight of cannabis products.”

“The weak regulatory infrastructure for Δ8-THC has led to manufacturing, advertising, and sales practices that are inconsistent with public health and safety,” the editorial says, calling the legal status of the cannabinoid “an unintended consequence” of the 2018 Farm Bill, which legalized hemp and its derivative products without establishing clear regulations or controls.

“This contrasts sharply with legalization of medical or adult-use (ie, recreational) cannabis,” the JAMA authors noted, “for which states set up systems to license cultivators and retail stores, monitor production and sales, test products for safety, and track population-level trends in use and adverse events among youth and adults.”

Cannabinoids produced by hemp can be converted by manufacturers into delta-8 THC. And because most states do not have their own regulatory systems around delta-8 THC, products can be sold more freely than standard marijuana. The cannabinoid is popular both in jurisdictions where no traditional marijuana products are available and, even in many states with licensed marijuana markets, are often sold without regulation or age restrictions.

The editorial says the adolescent use-rate findings in the new study “are consistent with findings from a nationally representative panel study of adults” that was published in JAMA last year. That study found higher delta-8 THC use among adults in states without medical or adult-use marijuana legalization.

“Both studies,” the editorial’s authors wrote, “offer preliminary evidence that use of Δ8-THC may be common, especially in states with full cannabis prohibition.”

As for cannabis itself, 30.4 percent of 12th graders nationally said they’d used the drug at least once in the past 12 months. “Marijuana use prevalence did not differ by cannabis policies,” the study found, showing that there were slightly higher past use rates in legalization states (32.0 percent vs. 29.2 percent in states where marijuana is illegal). Meanwhile, adopting delta-8 THC regulations appeared to have little or no impact on past year marijuana use (30.3 percent in states with delta-8 regulations compared to 30.6 percent in those without).

“There were no differences in marijuana use by state-level cannabis policies.”

The new study, by authors at the University of Southern California’s Keck School of Medicine, the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research and the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health, drew data from the Monitoring the Future survey, a federally funded classroom-based poll of U.S. students. In 2023, a third of the surveys of high-school seniors included a question about delta-8 THC use.

The JAMA editorial called the study, which received funding from the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), “the first to provide population-based data on Δ8-THC use among adolescents.”

NIDA Director Nora Volkow said in a press release about the results that “we don’t know enough about these drugs, but we see that they are already extremely accessible to teens.”

“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 need it,” she said.

A separate report published earlier this year by a CBD manufacturer, meanwhile, found that internet search interest in delta-8 THC was significantly higher in states where marijuana itself remains criminalized. The company said the findings indicated “a significant pivot toward alternative cannabinoids due to cannabis bans.”

Yet another report, published a year ago by the Department of Defense, found that delta-8 THC was the second most common substance to appear on positive drug tests for active duty military service members. Delta-8 THC showed up in 42.7 percent of positive drug tests, the department said, second only to marijuana.

There are mixed perspectives about how to address emerging cannabinoids among lawmakers, advocates and industry stakeholders. Some states have moved to ban or restrict their sale, for example. Others are pushing for revised federal rules to regulate intoxicating cannabinoids separately from CBD.

State marijuana regulators have urged Congress to ensure that they’re examining policies for the broader class of emerging cannabinoids—not just CBD.

The expectation is that congressional lawmakers will take up the issue during negotiations over the next Farm Bill—consideration of which has been delayed after the current legislation was temporarily extended.

The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) has said that it considers cannabinoids illegal if they’re synthetically produced—a common practice for delta-8 THC—but the market for such products has flourished nonetheless with limited enforcement.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which has faced criticism for declining to enact CBD regulations, has only lightly addressed emerging cannabinoid issues. For example, the agency has sent warning letters to various companies that they say are unlawfully selling “copycat” delta-8 THC products that are misleadingly packaged to mimic popular brands like Doritos, Cheetos and Jolly Ranchers.

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