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Feds issue warnings about ‘diet weed’ as Illinois lawmakers try again to crack down on hemp derivative

The federal agencies reported this week that 119 people were hospitalized after ingesting products infused with Delta-8 THC over the past year.

Products containing Delta-8-THC are displayed at Botanic Alternatives, located at 2497 N. Milwaukee Ave. in the Logan Square neighborhood, Thursday afternoon, April 8, 2021.
Products containing Delta-8-THC are displayed at Botanic Alternatives, located at 2497 N. Milwaukee Ave. in the Logan Square neighborhood, Thursday afternoon, April 8, 2021.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

A pair of federal agencies issued advisories this week detailing the potential dangers of Delta-8 THC, a trendy psychoactive substance known commonly as “diet weed” that some Illinois lawmakers are actively trying to regulate.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration warned Tuesday that “Delta-8 THC has serious health risks,” adding that unapproved products containing the popular cannabinoid should be kept away from kids and pets. The same day, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that Delta-8 products are often mislabeled and may not be tested for heavy metal, solvents or pesticides.

Delta-8 is similar to Delta-9-THC, the psychoactive compound in pot that gets users high, though it’s extracted from hemp and not marijuana. In recent years, it’s spiked in popularity after businesses began exploiting an apparent loophole in the federal Farm Bill of 2018 that made legal the distribution of hemp and its byproducts.

Both federal agencies noted that 119 people were hospitalized after ingesting products infused with the substance in the past year. Local poison control centers have fielded 661 calls about Delta-8 during that period, 39% of which involved juveniles.

Between December and July, the FDA also received “adverse event reports” for 22 patients who consumed Delta-8 products, including 14 who were hospitalized and 19 who experienced “vomiting, hallucinations, trouble standing, and loss of consciousness.”

The new warnings come as legislators look to crack down on the emerging gray market for substances like Delta-8.

Earlier this year, state Rep. Bob Morgan (D-Deerfield) introduced legislation that would have required products containing Delta-8, CBD and other unchecked cannabinoids to be tested and labeled, much like legal cannabis products. Since the bill passed the state House and fell short in the Senate, Morgan said he’s returned to the drawing board.

“Stakeholder meetings are currently underway to address the urgent public health issues involving the state’s regulation of CBD and Delta-8,” Morgan said in a statement Wednesday. “The CDC Health Advisory reinforced what we already knew — more people (including children) are ending up in the hospital after consuming these unregulated products.”

Unlike other states that have banned or restricted Delta-8, Morgan noted that he and other lawmakers are merely looking to protect public health “while allowing the state’s hemp farmers and small businesses to sell safe products.” In Chicago, Delta-8 is already sold freely in stores and used to infuse food and drinks at some popular dining establishments.

Pam Althoff, a former state senator who serves as executive director of the state’s influential cannabis trade group, has been part of the recent conversations with Morgan and his cohorts.

Althoff framed the rise of Delta-8 as both a “health crisis” and a consumer safety issue, likening it to the deadly vaping crisis that was linked to illicit products. Still, she acknowledged that it’s been challenging to educate lawmakers about the inherent dangers of unregulated cannabinoids.

“This kind of message just reinforces what we’ve been trying to do for the past nine months,” she said of the new advisories.