The popularity in Wyoming of delta-8 THC products — the legal, hemp-derived intoxicants known as “diet weed” or “marijuana lite” — isn’t surprising at all. People want the real thing, but they’ll buy whatever they can get.
The will of the people is no match, however, for the profound collective wisdom of Wyoming’s esteemed lawmakers, many of whom want to criminalize delta-8.
Sure, adults living in Montana, Colorado and 22 other states can legally make their own decisions about what to put in their own bodies, but here in supposedly freedom-loving Wyoming the social-issue warriors of our Legislature still believe that government knows best. The meteoric rise of delta-8, and all the problems that have come with it, are a direct result of that marijuana hypocrisy.
At least the Joint Judiciary Committee last week recognized the need to insulate the state’s burgeoning hemp industry from half-baked legislation. “I want to be on the record of saying how important [the hemp] industry can be to Wyoming, as we’re moving away from the cash crops that we’ve had in the past, such as sugar beets,” said Sen. Ed Cooper (R-Kemmerer), a member of the panel.
The committee will consider a revised draft bill at its November meeting that could end legal sales of delta-8 products in Wyoming.
A quick primer: THC, in its various forms, occurs naturally in hemp (a legal form of the cannabis plant) but only in trace amounts. That’s why, unlike marijuana (an illegal-in-Wyoming but legal-38-states form of the same plant), someone could smoke a truckload of hemp without getting high.
When people say THC, they’re usually referring to delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol — the state and federally controlled substance that gives most pot its punch. Delta-8 is, chemically speaking, a kissing cousin of that beloved-by-many and demonized-by-others cannabis compound. And though it has many of the same effects on its users, delta-8 is subject to far fewer state and federal regulations.
Processors exploit that loophole, and the 2018 national decriminalization of hemp, by extracting the relatively low levels of delta-8 found in hemp and concentrating it — in some cases to 20% or higher. The result is a powerfully psychoactive product that, though legal, can be both dangerous and hard to distinguish from illegal marijuana and related cannabis products.
“There isn’t a scientific test we can do right now to prove [delta-8 THC’s origins],” Sarah Barrett, drug chemistry and toxicology supervisor at the Wyoming State Crime Laboratory, told the committee.
Nationally, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has received reports of hundreds of adverse reactions to delta-8 THC, including hallucinations, vomiting, tremors, anxiety, dizziness, confusion and loss of consciousness. Six Cody High School students landed in the emergency room with some of those symptoms, and in January classmates lobbied to restrict sales for anyone under 21.
The simplest remedy is to ban delta-8 — no matter the level of THC — an action the Legislature has yet to take. The issue has, however, made lawmakers more aware of delta-8’s potential dangers and that natural, closely regulated marijuana might be the safer alternative.
Delta-8 THC isn’t regulated by the Food and Drug Administration. The industry, which garnered $2 billion in sales in its first two years, isn’t required to disclose the THC amount and even whether it contains any harmful chemicals.
Delta-8 THC joins non-psychoactive CBD products on shelves in head shops, convenience stores, gas stations and other retail markets throughout the state, and online. Delta-8 THC products, including gummies, brownies, vape pens and tinctures, have been particularly embraced by customers in central Wyoming, who live far away from neighboring states where marijuana is legal.
Based on testimony at the Judiciary panel’s meeting, the drug has support from most users and sellers, and opposition from people who consider it unsafe.
“The whole reason delta-8 has been created or has caught on with so much popularity is because of the ongoing prohibition against marijuana,” said Marcus Jones of the Platte Hemp Company. “This was a loophole to give the community what they want, and we’ve seen a huge rise in people wanting cannabis-related products.”
State lawmakers have consistently rejected all attempts to not only legalize medical and/or recreational marijuana, but also to decriminalize weed. Their position is at odds with public opinion.
The University of Wyoming Survey and Analysis Center conducted the most recent statewide poll on the topic in 2020. A majority of residents favored legalizing marijuana for personal use, and a supermajority — 85% — supported medical marijuana. The latter received majority support across all age groups, which doesn’t surprise me. Even my late father, who was in law enforcement for more than 40 years, told me he wanted medical marijuana legalized.
But for many years, the Wyoming Association of Sheriffs and Chiefs of Police has been the staunchest opponent of all things related to weed, from legalization to decriminalization. It lobbied against the hemp bill that finally passed three years ago, even though it promised to help Wyoming’s agricultural communities survive.
I’ll never forget the cancer survivors and others with life-threatening medical conditions who pleaded with legislators to allow medical marijuana in Wyoming. The stories of people whose spouses, relatives and friends needlessly suffered and died in agony without available pain relief was heartbreaking.
WASCOP and other opponents were unmoved. They maintained, incorrectly, that marijuana is a “gateway” drug that leads to addictions to narcotics like heroin. That was all most legislators needed to give bills a consistent thumbs-down.
However, the National Bureau of Economic Research found in its 2021 study that there is “little compelling evidence to suggest” weed legalization leads to more increases in drug use, arrests for hard drug offenses, drug overdoses, or admissions for drug addiction treatment.
Dr. Karen Van Gundy, associate professor of sociology at the University of New Hampshire, told Psychology Today: “Whether marijuana smokers go on to use illegal drugs depends more on social factors like being exposed to stress and being unemployed, not so much whether they smoked a joint in the eighth grade.”
Underage smoking and alcohol use typically precede marijuana use, Van Gundy added, but marijuana is not the most common and rarely the first illicit drug used.
Put that in your pipe and smoke it, WASCOP.
If state lawmakers truly want to protect people from the dangers of an unregulated and little-understood product — one even its sellers can’t tell customers how much THC it actually contains or how much is safe to use — they should join the 38 states that legalized medical marijuana, and the 24 states that allow recreational weed for adult personal use. Regulate it, tax it, and select a worthy recipient, like public education, to use the revenue.
I think delta-8 THC use would quickly decline, even if it remains legal. Some people, though, may prefer delta-8, which some believe produces less paranoia and anxiety than delta-9 THC, while maintaining health benefits like reducing stress.
The federal government may soon remove, or at least lower, some of the biggest regulatory hurdles facing the licit pot industry by downgrading marijuana from a Schedule 1 substance, where it’s classified the same as LSD and heroin, to the much less severe Schedule 3.
It’s not total legalization, but it would allow for the drug’s federal regulation and improve the health and safety of users.
U.S. Sen. Cynthia Lummis (R-Wyoming) wasn’t speaking for a majority of her constituents last week when she sponsored a bill to give Congress, not President Joe Biden’s administration, the final word on reclassification.
“The Biden administration’s rush to reschedule marijuana without compelling scientific evidence appears to be political, not about what’s best for the American people,” Lummis said in a statement.
Say it ain’t so, senator! Of course, it’s always been political, as evidenced by the past five decades of her party demonizing weed and locking people up for years for possession of minimal amounts.
The “war on drugs,” including the marijuana ban, is a political strategy most Americans now realize is a colossal failure. Wyoming knows it too, and it’s time people stand up and tell our Legislature this prohibition must end.