One in 10 high schoolers have used dangerous ‘diet weed’ linked to thousands of poisonings, NIH report suggests

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Written By Rivera Claudia

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  • The figure amounts to at least one or two seniors in every high school classroom
  • Delta-8 is unregulated and age verification is not required, which attracts kids
  • READ MORE:  Smoking weed daily raises risk of heart attack or stroke up to 60%

Over one in 10 high school seniors use delta-8 THC, a sibling of the psychoactive chemical in marijuana, a first-time analysis suggests.

Delta-8, commonly referred to as ‘diet weed’ because it promises the high without anxiety, has exploded in popularity among young people who don’t have to show age verification to buy it.

Of the 12th-graders who used Delta-8, 91 percent also reported using marijuana, according to the NIH-funded study.

Researchers now consider the proliferation of delta-8 products a ‘public health concern’, with lead author Adam Leventhal saying he and fellow researchers ‘just didn’t expect it to be so high’.

Delta-8 products are not regulated and customers do not need to show age verification to buy them. This, in addition to technicolor packaging that appeals to young people, has helped drive up youth use

Delta-8 is cheap and easy to get. Falling prices for the drug appears to coincide with its growing popularity as a 'safer' alternative to marijuana

Delta-8 is cheap and easy to get. Falling prices for the drug appears to coincide with its growing popularity as a ‘safer’ alternative to marijuana 

Diet weed has not been studied extensively, and its effects on the teenage brain are not well understood. 

But it has led to thousands of annual poisonings, poking holes in the argument that delta-8 is a safer alternative to marijuana.  

Researchers at the Keck School of Medicine at the University of Southern California, with backing from the NIH, conducted the first analysis of its kind of teen use of delta-8.

The data reflected use among high school seniors in 2023 collected as part of the national Monitoring the Future survey, which is funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

Around 11 percent of 12th graders – one or two in every average-sized American high school classroom – admitted to using the drug.

As this analysis is the first to examine rates of delta-8 use, researchers could not determine whether this was higher than in previous years. However, there are strong indications that youth use is on the rise.

Calls to poison centers across the US related to Delta-8 jumped 82 percent from 2021 to 2022, amounting to more than 2,300 calls. Over 40 percent of those calls pertained to children. 

Dr Leventhal told NBC News: ‘We know high school students naturally want to explore and try new “exciting” things, like e-cigarettes, alcohol or marijuana.

‘It’s not surprising that we’re seeing that they’re using delta-8.’

The substance, which often comes in vape form in technicolor packaging to attract young people – the same strategy used by e-cigarette makers – is extremely easy to get, thanks to a lack of regulation.

Last year, researchers from Hofstra University found that over half of 45 delta-8 retail websites sold their products in kid-friendly packaging.

Dr Alyssa Harlow, lead author and public health professor at the University of Southern California, said: ‘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 public health efforts to help youth and parents stay informed and safe.’

The short- and long-term effects on developing brains have not been examined fully.

Delta-8 products are often packaged in such a way that will be eye-catching and can look as innocuous as candy

Delta-8 products are often packaged in such a way that will be eye-catching and can look as innocuous as candy

Delta-8 comes from the hemp plant and is chemically very similar to delta-9 THC in cannabis, except that it binds to cannabinoid receptors in the brain less strongly than delta-9. This explains why it’s less psychoactive than delta-9 THC.

It is also believed to cause less paranoia and anxiety than marijuana, adding to its appeal.

While it hasn’t been studied as extensively, researchers believe it has similar effects on the developing brain as marijuana, which can lead to poor academic performance, difficulty thinking and problem-solving, and even addiction.

Researchers from the University of California, San Diego found earlier this year that adolescents from 13 to 14 years old who had used cannabis in the past year had poorer memory than those who had never used the drug.

Similarly, researchers from the University of Vermont scanned the brains of teenagers from England, Ireland, France, and Germany to study marijuana’s effects.

They concluded that 14-year-old girls and boys exposed to THC – the psychoactive chemical in cannabis – had a greater volume of grey matter – tissue responsible for muscle control, sensory perception such as seeing and hearing, memory, emotions, speech, decision making, and self-control – in their brains.

Their findings signaled that youth use of marijuana disrupted their brain development.

The study, published in the journal JAMA, has its limitations.

It only considered the high school-aged seniors enrolled in school and did not take into account those who are home-schooled or not currently enrolled in school. It also didn’t consider the students who were absent on the day of the survey.


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