There’s a new high in town.
A growing number of Chicago businesses are now exploiting a loophole in federal law that appears to allow the unfettered sale of a trendy hemp byproduct called Delta-8-THC, which has commonly been described as “marijuana-lite” or “diet weed.”
Retailers across the city have started selling a variety of Delta-8 products in settings that resemble licensed cannabis dispensaries but aren’t subject to the same stiff regulations. Many sell everything from edibles to vaping cartridges, as well as smokable hemp flower sprayed with Delta-8 extract.
Some places are dosing food and drinks with Delta-8 and allowing customers to consume it on site. That flies in the face of a hard-fought provision in the state’s marijuana legalization law that tightly regulates on-site consumption, which isn’t allowed in Chicago yet.
Those spots have become extremely popular — with lines stretching down the block.
“People travel to Chicago because it’s Chicago and they make it a point to stop here because of the vibe,” said Adryan Delgado, the manager of Wake-N-Bakery, a coffee shop in Lake View that sells drinks and pastries infused with Delta-8 and CBD.
Waits can be 30 minutes to get inside, he said.
Delta-8 is similar to Delta-9-THC, the psychoactive compound in weed that gets users high, though it’s extracted from hemp and not marijuana. Those selling Delta-8 claim it has all the upsides of pot and none of the buzz-killing side effects, like anxiety and paranoia.
Entrepreneurs seized on Delta-8 after the federal Farm Bill of 2018 made legal the distribution and sale of hemp and its byproducts. That law explicitly excluded Delta-9, but there’s no mention of its mellower relative.
As Delta-8’s popularity has grown, the influential trade group that represents Illinois’ licensed pot businesses has started lobbying state and federal lawmakers for stricter regulations while raising concerns about its safety. Though Delta-8 is currently sold at some dispensaries in the state, the Cannabis Business Association of Illinois is now pushing to completely prohibit its sale outside those controlled environments.
Pam Althoff, a former state senator who now serves as the association’s executive director, said Delta-8 sellers are increasingly cropping up in “cannabis deserts,” where licensed pot shops haven’t opened. She described Delta-8 as a potentially dangerous “substitute” for legal weed — and one that’s being sold at lower prices.
“Delta-8 is creating a competitive market without being subject to the same standards and regulations and rules that the cannabis industry is,” noted Althoff, who likened the Delta-8 dilemma to the deadly vaping and synthetic marijuana crises that previously roiled the nationwide cannabis industry.
That stark warning was echoed by the owner of a cannabis testing lab who noticed multiple “red flags” when he tested Delta-8 products bought off store shelves in Chicago. The tester, who asked to remain anonymous, said he was most concerned that one brand of vaping cartridges had high levels of residual solvents and heavy metals, namely lead and chromium.
“They’re not testing for that. … Heavy metals were directly attributed to the ‘Vapegate,’” said the tester, who shared the results with the Sun-Times.
On top of that, he also found that some Delta-8 products have illegal levels of Delta-9 — meaning some stores are essentially weed.
Primed for a crackdown?
Despite those alarms, some Chicago businesses profiting off the Delta-8 craze are thriving.
Wake-N-Bakery opened just three days after sales of recreational weed kicked off and soon became a hotspot on the heels of a viral TikTok video. Delgado said the shop has also gotten a huge boost from selling items laced with Delta-8, which he described as “CBD on crack.”
“We do not compete with the dispensaries. We don’t compete with other bakeries. We don’t compete with other coffee shops. We’re pioneering it because no one’s doing it the way that we’re doing it,” Delgado said of Wake-N-Bakery’s business model.
Delgado claimed the shop has grown into “more than a half a million dollar company,” saying his team has already been offered franchising opportunities.
Thomas Fisher, the owner of Botanic Alternatives in Logan Square, said selling Delta-8 has also been beneficial for his business, but sales haven’t exactly been through the roof. He sells Delta-8 flower, as well as edibles, tinctures and vaping cartridges infused with the psychoactive substance. The store also stocks various hemp-derived cannabinoids — like CBD and CBG — and certain types of “adaptogenic” mushrooms.
“We specialize in everything the dispensary does not focus on,” said Jeff Trout, the store’s general manager. “Local dispensaries focus on Delta-9-THC, that’s what their license specifically allows them to sell.”
The next round of highly sought-after marijuana dispensary licenses have been mired in controversy and delays but will likely be worth millions. However, businesses like Botanic Alternatives and Wake-N-Bakery don’t need a special license to sell Delta-8.
The shops also aren’t subject to the same strict testing requirements, though Fisher and Delgado claimed they ensure their respective supplies have been screened for contaminants. Botanic Alternatives sources its Delta-8 from Florida, while Wake-N-Bakery makes its own isolate.
As for a potential crackdown, Delgado said it would be devastating for Wake-N-Bakery. But Fisher and Trout seemed far less concerned.
“We were a business before Delta-8 [and] we’re going to be a business after Delta-8,” said Fisher. “If anything changes, we just need to be ready and poised to continue on.”
Though Trout raised the possibility of pivoting to selling another legal cannabinoid — like Delta-10 — Althoff specifically noted that her group wants any psychoactive hemp derivative barred from being sold outside dispensaries.
The association’s pushback comes as lawmakers and regulators in Oregon consider whether to take similar action. In a news release on March 20, the Oregon Liquor Control Commission noted that Delta-8 products aren’t currently subject to testing and could potentially be bought by children — concerns shared by Althoff.
She said her group has already started raising the issue to state lawmakers and has also sent a letter to Illinois’ congressional delegation “drawing their attention to the dangers of Delta-8.”