From head shops to grocery stores, many Madison businesses have found recent success selling delta-8-hemp — a substance found in small quantities in cannabis plants.

Unlike marijuana, whose main psychoactive component is delta-8-THC, delta-8 is legal to purchase in Wisconsin. The U.S. Senate passed the 2018 Farm Bill legalizing hemp and cannabis derivatives with low concentrations of delta-8-THC, according to the FDA.

Despite the difference in legal status, the effects of consuming delta-8 are similar to traditional marijuana, according to Justin Hennings, the warehouse manager of local Madison head shop KnuckleHeads.

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“It is less psychoactive, but it does give people that joyous feeling associated with THC,” Hennings said. “But we try to stray away from calling it delta-8-THC because that confuses some people. It is a completely different compound. It is not derived from THC but rather hemp, which is used for a number of products that aren’t delta-8.”

The main chemical difference between delta-8 and delta-9 is the location of a double bond, University of Wisconsin chemistry professor Daniel Weix said. Weix said small changes can create big differences in how the molecule behaves in the body.

The Food and Drug Administration has cautioned consumers about delta-8 on its website, saying the FDA has not evaluated the substance, and has received reports of adverse events regarding delta-8’s consumption.

These concerns pose a challenge to delta-8’s commercial success, Hennings said.

“The biggest challenge facing delta-8 right now is the marijuana industry and the government itself,” Hennings said. “Both parties are not pleased that the substance has become so big because there is only sales tax on it, whereas marijuana— in states where it is legalized — has very high tax rates.”

District 4 Ald. Mike Verveer said delta-8 occupies a legal gray area, meaning the product is largely unregulated. If there will be regulations on delta-8, it will come from the state government — not the city government, Verveer said.

The regulations could either be written by the Wisconsin legislature or come from other agencies such as the FDA and the Wisconsin Department of Agricultural Trade and Consumer Protection.

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Verveer said delta-8 is legal to use in Wisconsin. When he was writing the Madison City ordinance to further decriminalize marijuana in 2019, Verveer said the Wisconsin Department of Justice recommended enforcement agencies not take action against any CBD products.

He said both consumers and sellers can rest assured that local law enforcement is not involved in searching for nor enforcing any laws for delta-8 in Madison. 

“It’s clearly sold in plain sight and certainly as of this time I don’t know of any desire by anybody in the municipal government to get involved with ending the consumption of delta-8,” he said. 

With the unregulated aspect of the industry comes safety and quality concerns.

Considering the unregulated status of the compound in Wisconsin, Weix said he has a host of concerns regarding the purity of delta-8. 

“If it’s the case that this is basically unregulated, then you’re just trusting that the companies making this have a pure product,” Weix said. “It could be contaminated from material with the synthesis, it could be that the reaction is incomplete and chemical reactions can have side reactions, so there could be other cannabinoids in there.”

The illegal status of marijuana in Wisconsin can lead to people consuming newer, sometimes more dangerous variants, freelance investigative journalist Ben Westhoff said.

Marijuana prohibitions were one reason people began using the synthetic cannabinoid known as Spice, Westhoff said. Spice, a human-made psychoactive drug, has been known to cause overdoses. It is not to be confused with delta-8, which is derived from the hemp plant.

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Westhoff said he does not know how safe delta-8 is, but he imagines fewer people would be using it if marijuana were legal in Wisconsin.

“It’s painfully obvious that we’re the only state in our region that hasn’t legalized medicinal marijuana, so it makes sense that there’s this huge market for delta-8 that will remain robust until we come to our senses and that state legislation takes meaningful measures to legalize cannabis in Wisconsin,” Verveer said. 

In the meantime, Knuckleheads has seen an uptick in purchases of delta-8, Hennings said.

The derivative is popular enough that it’s available for purchase at local grocery chain Woodman’s, according to their website

“The bottleneck is the Republicans, not the governor, nor the people, who in poll after poll support legalization,” Verveer said. 

Badger Herald State News Associate Maggie Degnan contributes to this article.