Jan. 24—Recreational marijuana is illegal in Ohio, but consumers across the Dayton region and state can get high by buying THC products that are sold at gas stations, head shops, liquor stores and other retail establishments.
The products, which are legal under state and federal law because they are derived from hemp, sometimes are marketed as "diet weed" or "marijuana lite" because the THC they contain is less psychoactive and potent than in traditional marijuana.
Some store owners and cannabis researchers say the products have exploded in popularity, and many users report fewer adverse effects than from ingesting or smoking regular marijuana.
"They are as safe as any over-the-counter product available at the drug store," said E.R. Beach, owner of Hemptations, which has four locations, including one in Dayton. "Our advice to anyone trying something new has always been, first-time use should be done in a safe environment. I believe the biggest side effect may be drowsiness."
Some medical experts say hemp-derived THC products are completely unregulated and can contain dangerous contaminants because of the way in which they are made.
"People assume if you can buy it in a gas station, if you buy it over the counter, if you can get it on the internet, it must be safe," said Glen Solomon, professor and chair of the Department of Internal Medicine and Neurology at Wright State University. "But that couldn't be further from the truth — these are totally unregulated products that are rich in contaminants."
The 2018 U.S. farm bill allows cannabis products derived from hemp to be sold and used, and concentrated amounts of delta-8 THC can be manufactured from hemp-derived cannabidiol (CBD).
Delta-8 THC is a psychoactive chemical compound that is found in the cannabis sativa plant. Delta-8 THC is believed to be about 50% to 75% as psychoactive as its more widely known and used cousin, delta-9 THC, which is naturally occurring in marijuana, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The Dayton Daily News found delta-8 THC products for sale at gas stations, liquor stores, smoke shops, vape shops, corner stores, markets and convenience stores all across the region.
A gas station in southeast Dayton sells "birthday cake" delta-8 THC joints from a company called Moon Buzz.
Another nearby gas station sells a variety of delta-8 products, including "cherry ultra" gummies, from a company called Flying Monkey.
Delta-8 THC products include vapes, vape cartridges, infused beverages and edibles like gummies or chocolates. Some shops sell rolled joints.
Delta-8 is the most popular hemp extract on the market right now, and there are hundreds of brands that offer tinctures, edibles and vapes, said Beach, with Hemptations, which has sold delta-8 THC products for a couple of years at its stores in Dayton, Cincinnati and Sharonville.
Hemptations sells natural therapeutic products, and consumers like the calming effects of delta-8 THC products, Beach said.
"We have been in business for over 25 years and I wouldn't sell something that was potentially harmful," he said.
Hemp is the same basic plant as marijuana, but it has less than 0.3% delta-9 THC, and smoking or ingesting hemp will not get people high, said Solomon, with Wright State University.
But hemp is rich in CBD, which can be chemically manipulated to create concentrated delta-8 THC, Solomon said.
According to Solomon, the problem is that delta-8 THC manufacturers are subject to no oversight, and many make their products in places like their bath tubs or basements, potentially using toxic chemicals like household bleach and acids.
"It's not like this stuff is being made by Pfizer in a regulated plant," he said. "The way you have to make it makes it very dangerous for anyone to use."
The products can be poisonous and are particularly harmful to kids and pets, he said.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration says delta-8 THC products are not evaluated or approved by the agency for safe use in any context, and some users have reported adverse effects.
National poison centers received 660 exposure cases of delta-8 THC products in the first half of 2021, the FDA said.
Last fall, the CDC issued a health advisory about delta-8 THC products that said, "Variations in product content, manufacturing practices, labeling and potential misunderstanding of the psychoactive properties of delta-8 THC may lead to unexpected effects among consumers."
But a survey of more than 500 delta-8 THC users from 38 states including Ohio found that many people reported fewer negative side effects compared to traditional marijuana.
Delta-8 THC provided the relaxation and pain relief associated with delta-9 THC, with somewhat less euphoria and less cognitive distortion, such as difficulty with short-term memory and concentration, said Dan Kruger, a research investigator in the Population Studies Center at the University of Michigan.
Users also reported experiencing less anxiety and paranoia compared to delta-9 THC, according to the study by Kruger and co-author Jessica Kruger, clinical assistant professor with the Department of Community Health and Health Behavior at the University at Buffalo.
Dan Kruger, however, said potential contaminants in unregulated delta-8 THC products are concerning, such as heavy metals and cutting agents.