Delta-8-THC use reported by 11% of 12th graders

March 12, 2024

Use of the psychoactive cannabis product is higher in states without existing delta-8 regulations or cannabis legalization, NIH-funded study finds

Delta 8 gummy candies. Image credit: Elsa Olofsson,
Delta 8 gummy candies. Image credit: Elsa Olofsson,

The first ever national estimates of teen delta-8 use indicate that 11% of 12th grade students across the United States used it in the past year.

This information comes from the Monitoring the Future study, which annually surveys adolescents across the U.S. and is conducted by researchers at the University of Michigan and funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse of the National Institutes of Health.

Delta-8 is a cannabis compound that can produce a ‘high’ similar to marijuana. The term “delta-8” stands for delta-8-THC, which is chemically a close cousin of delta-9-THC, the principal psychoactive compound of marijuana. The purchase of delta-8 products typically has no age restrictions. Most delta-8 is derived from hemp, a variety of the cannabis plant.

Richard Miech
Richard Miech

“This is the first national study to report the extent of delta-8 use among young people, which is important to inform research and policy,” said Richard Miech, team lead of the Monitoring the Future study at the University of Michigan and co-author of the study. “A prevalence of 11% is appreciable and indicates this drug is quickly making inroads among teens.”

The study is published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

To date, there is no conclusive evidence to suggest delta-8 is safer than marijuana or other THC cannabis products. Given its similarities to delta-9, delta-8 is likely to carry the same risks, the study’s authors note. Lack of federal regulation of delta-8 products can also put consumers at high risk of exposure to toxic byproducts.

According to the Food and Drug Administration, because delta-8 content in the cannabis plant is naturally very low, manufacturers often use other, more abundant hemp cannabinoids—namely cannabidiol (CBD)—to make delta-8. The CBD to delta-8 conversion process requires additional chemicals, which can be hazardous. The resulting delta-8 products may contain residual contaminants that are harmful when inhaled or ingested.

Research on cannabis suggests that the developing brain in children and adolescents may be at risk of negative and deleterious effects from cannabis use, including memory loss, cognitive difficulties, brain developmental processes and cannabis use disorder. There are no existing medications to treat cannabis use disorder, and current treatments are primarily through psychosocial interventions, such as cognitive behavioral therapy.

The Monitoring the Future survey is administered annually to students in classrooms in eighth, 10th and 12th grades who self-report their substance use behaviors over various time periods, such as past 30 days, past 12 months and lifetime. From February through June 2023, the Monitoring the Future investigators collected 22,318 surveys from students enrolled across 235 public and private schools in the U.S. In 2023, the survey included questions on delta-8 for the first time, and they were administered to a randomly selected one-third of 12th grade students, resulting in 2,186 12th graders in 27 states. Given the prevalence of use found in the 2023 survey, questions on delta-8 have been added to future surveys for all age groups.

The survey showed approximately 14% of 12th graders in the South and 15% in the Midwest reported delta-8 use, compared to 10% in the Northeast and 5% in the West. Around 14% of 12th graders in states without cannabis legalization reported delta-8 use, compared to 8% in states with legalization. In states without existing delta-8 regulations, 14% reported use compared to 6% in states with delta-8 legislation.

“In states without cannabis legalization, delta-8 might be marketed as a legal alternative to cannabis and be easier for teenagers to access” said Alyssa Harlow, clinical assistant professor of population and public health sciences at the University of Southern California, a member of the USC Institute for Addiction Science and lead author of the study.

“Delta-8 products are out there where teens can easily find and buy them, and there needs to be continued surveillance of its use, as well as policy and public health efforts to help youth and parents stay informed and safe.”

Because the survey is taken in school settings, students who were absent, not enrolled or with less engagement in school—a known risk factor for drug use—may have been less likely to participate in the survey, the investigators note. This exclusion may have potentially led to an underestimation of adolescent use of delta-8. Future work will need to assess delta-8 use in younger teens; include a larger survey sample across a wider range of states; and examine the use of other hemp-derived products, including delta-9 and delta-10.