Jessica Watkins
Jessica Watkins, 30, favors natural remedies, such as herbal teas, to manage anxiety, and figured delta-8 fit the same category. Photo by Nathan Hunsinger

Sales of delta-8 and other hemp products have soared. So have calls to poison control centers.

 As a new kind of legal weed takes the U.S. by storm, regulators, law enforcement and even industry voices are calling for more oversight.

April 18, 2024

This story is published as part of Highly Legal, a media partnership with, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, PennLive and USA TODAY. Our team is continuing to report on new cannabis products and we want to hear from you. Share your experience or questions with us here.

To calm her racing mind ahead of a visit with her sister in Arlington, Texas, Jessica Watkins ate half of a delta-8 gummy.  

About an hour into the family visit in the spring of 2022, Watkins regretted her decision. She had expected, at most, a mild feeling of lightness. But this was different. She found herself cold, numb and shaking. “It felt like my mental perception was really altered,” she said. “I was detached from my surroundings.” 

Watkins, who is 30, has struggled with anxiety since she was a teen. She favors natural remedies, such as herbal teas, to manage it, and figured delta-8 fit the same category. She purchased the 25 milligram birthday cake-flavored gummy from an online store recommended by a friend. 

Watkins was upset that the packaging did not include any warning about what to expect. It was nearly two days before she felt like herself again, she said. “It was the most frightening thing ever.”

The Examination
Jessica Watkins purchased this bottle of 25 milligram delta-8 gummies from an online store.Photos provided

Recreational marijuana remains illegal in about half of the United States. But products that deliver the same or a similar high are soaring in popularity in many of those states, including in Texas, where marijuana possession can still lead to fines and even jail time.  

How to explain this apparent contradiction? In the 2018 farm bill, Congress allowed for the legal sale of hemp, a variety of cannabis plant, which has very low levels of delta-9 THC, the psychoactive compound that gets people high. The new law unleashed a blizzard of new hemp products marketed as sleep aids, to relieve anxiety and for dozens of other applications. Some deliver a mild buzz, or none at all. 

Others marketed for the same uses are far stronger. Through processing, manufacturers have found ways to greatly enhance the potency of the products, leading to a flood of gummies, vapes, sodas and even beer that deliver a high that equals or even exceeds that of traditional marijuana. 

Doctors and researchers are raising alarms about risks from the fast emerging, unregulated products as poison centers and hospitals see a sharp rise in reports of children and adults getting sick, a joint investigation by The Examination,, and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel has found. 

Hemp products typically include some kind of general warning notice, including consumption recommendations — but little detailed information about risks and possible side effects. Merchants, including gas station attendants, are faced with questions about products that befuddle even doctors. 

The Examination
Delta-8, delta-9 THC products have flooded into U.S. states that don’t allow the legal sale of marijuana. Photo by Tamika Moore for

It’s a big human guinea pig experiment with a lot of these substances,” said Patrick Cournoyer, who leads the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s cannabis product committee. “And that, of course, in and of itself, should be alarming.”

Cournoyer called the prevalence of psychoactive hemp products a “major public health issue.” The agency has sent warning letters to a handful of manufacturers, including some that made unproven medical claims

Regulators and scientists have also raised concerns about the possible contamination or adulteration of hemp-derived products due to the synthetic processing and lack of regulatory requirements. 

Understanding and oversight have lagged far behind sales, which climbed to nearly $3 billion in 2023, fueled in part by surging online sales. 

Many people are deeply grateful that marijuana-like compounds are now for sale in their communities, and use them for all the same reasons as traditional weed: for fun, to alleviate pain and more. 

“We hear stories every day about the use of these products to help people sleep, help with common aches and pains," said Jonathan Miller, general counsel of the U.S. Hemp Roundtable, the most active industry trade group. “We hear about elderly folks using these products to help promote joint health. There are so many different applications for these products and that's why they're so popular.”

But there are other stories, as well. Some people who have reported uncomfortable highs, and in some circumstances, panic attacks, psychosis, and hospitalization after taking a delta-8 or other hemp product. America’s Poison Centers, which represents 55 poison control centers around the U.S., logged more than 8,000 delta 8-related calls from 2021 to 2023.

As with many traditional marijuana products, those derived from hemp are also often packaged in a way that looks similar to candy. Children, including some very young, have accidentally gobbled them up, leading to panicked calls to poison control centers. Close to a third of the calls to poison control involved children under six years old. 

In a 2021 case, a toddler was admitted to a pediatric intensive care unit after eating watermelon-flavored delta-8 gummies that had been left in a bottle on a counter, according to an FDA report

The FDA has said its authority to oversee the hemp market is limited. 

In testimony before the U.S House of Representatives Committee on Oversight and Accountability last week, FDA Commissioner Robert Califf said that a “new regulatory regime” is needed.

Miller, of the hemp trade group, said the FDA should do more to regulate his industry. 

He characterized the status quo as a “continuing source of frustration.”

“We’ve kind of got a standstill, and we are hoping that at some point Congress will pass legislation that will require FDA to start looking at these products,” he said. Until then, the U.S. Hemp Authority has announced a certification program to “ensure they are produced with good manufacturing practices and are not marketed or sold to children,” Miller said.

For now, the official response very much depends on where people live. Colorado and 10 other states, have banned the sale of delta-8 and some other hemp products, according to MJBizDaily, a cannabis news site. Six states, including Arizona, have attempted to regulate delta-8 products within their legal marijuana markets. In almost two dozen states, there are no clear regulations or bans in place. In Wisconsin, there isn’t even a minimum age for purchases.

“Without a federal regulatory framework, there are 50 different state approaches,” said Shawn Hauser, a partner at Vincente LLP, a Denver law firm specializing in cannabis. 

In March, the attorneys general of 21 states, including California, Connecticut, Arkansas and Maryland, pleaded with Congress to “address the glaring vagueness created in the 2018 Farm Bill that has led to the proliferation of intoxicating hemp products across the nation.” 

The legislation had unintentionally unleashed “a flood of products that are nothing less than a more potent form of cannabis… with staggering levels of potency, no regulation, no oversight, and a limited capability for our offices to rein them in,” the law enforcement officials wrote.

From ‘it’s just smooth’ to felt like dying

Even for adults, the many choices and conflicting information about marijuana alternatives can be bewildering. 

Online ads promise edibles that are “all natural” or made from hemp grown in the U.S. When Watkins bought her gummy, her friend had given her a list of retailers. Watkins chose to purchase the birthday cake flavored gummy from Premium Jane, an online retailer based in Scottsdale, Arizona, that advertises CBD products “packed with natural goodness.” 

The Examination
Jessica Watkins, of Arlington, Texas, purchased birthday cake-flavored delta-8 gummies from an online retailer based in Scottsdale, Arizona.Photo by Nathan Hunsinger

She selected the birthday cake flavor because she thought it would taste the best. 

But Watkins did not feel the calm she hoped to experience. “I thought it was going to help me relax and it ended up getting me high,” she said. 

The retailer no longer sells the birthday cake flavored gummy Watkins purchased and did not respond to a request for comment by The Examination. On its website, Premium Jane warned that "the effects experienced by one person may be different than the effects experienced by someone else," but did not address the type of adverse reaction experienced by Watkins.

Phil Watts, a IT network engineer in Wisconsin, said he uses delta-8 and other hemp products to help him relax, especially after long days at work and following tough workouts at the gym.

“It doesn’t get me delusional,” Watts, 46, said of his combination of delta-8 and CBD. “It’s just smooth. I’m not in pain and my body and my mind are relaxed.”

The Examination
Delta-8 and delta-10 products seen at CBD American Shaman Menomonee Falls on Friday April 10, 2024 in Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin. Photo by Jovanny Hernandez for Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Watts said he initially purchased delta-8 flower from gas stations, but he felt like it had an off taste, and the gas station clerks didn’t know anything about the products. He said he would prefer to use actual marijuana, but unless it becomes legal in Wisconsin, he said he will continue to settle for delta-8. 

On platforms like Reddit and Facebook, users have shared their experience with hemp products. A recurring theme is that they help ease PTSD and chronic pain, but experts say the power of social media word of mouth in marketing may candy coat the dangers. 

Children are among the most vulnerable – and teens among the most tempted.

In one case, a three-year-old and a four-year-old were taken to an emergency room after eating a bag of “Cannaburst” gummies packaged to look like the popular Starburst taffy candy, according to a 2021 adverse event report to the FDA. Such reports can come from healthcare professionals, industry and consumers, and can lead to warning letters, recalls or other government actions.  

In a recent survey of more than 2,000 high school seniors, 11% said they had used delta-8 in the last 12 months. 

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In 2022, a group of 14-year-olds ate a handful of 100 milligram delta-8 gummies — an extremely high dosage — made by Death by Gummies, a Minnesota based brand. They experienced delayed speech, dizziness, nausea, vomiting, tremors, difficulty talking and trying to respond to questions, according to an adverse event report filed with the FDA. Some of the students were crying, anxious and upset. They said they “felt like they were dying” — and said “they didn’t want to die,” according to the report. 

Later that year, the state’s pharmaceutical board filed a civil suit against the company behind Death by Gummies for selling products containing more than 50 times the state’s legal limit for THC. The lawsuit was settled in January this year, and the company has agreed to pay $105,000 to Minnesota's pharmacy board and health department pursuant to a consent order.

Northland Vapors, the makers of Death by Gummies, did not respond to a request for comment. 

‘No guarantee of safety’

In states like New York, legal cannabis products must carry a certificate of analysis, a document that shows the product has been tested for heavy metals and pesticides. In some states, hemp-derived products face no such requirement. When certificates are voluntarily provided, they can’t always be trusted. 

“The most important thing people should know is that there is no guarantee of safety,” said Adie Rae Wilson Poe, a neuroscientist at Legacy Research Institute in Oregon, who is studying the role of cannabinoids in pain relief. “There’s no guarantee that it doesn’t have any other toxins like pesticides, or heavy metal, or residual solvents.” 

Chris Hudalla, president and chief scientific officer of ProVerde Laboratories in Massachusetts, has tested thousands of hemp products. He has found many unknown byproducts, which he blames on how they’re made. 

The products are made by chemical synthesis that can take place anywhere from a seller’s basement to a manufacturing plant. The method involves dissolving CBD isolate in solvent, adding a strong acid, heating it, and neutralizing the acid. This process, known as isomerization, changes the position of the carbon double bond from the ninth carbon to the eighth carbon, which is how it gets its name — delta-8.

Bill Schulz for Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

“We typically see somewhere between seven and 30 different chemical compounds that do not exist in nature. These are novel chemical compounds that are made accidentally during the process of the synthesis,” Hudalla said. And the long term effects of consuming these compounds remain unknown. “If they cause cancer, we don’t know. If they cause birth defects [we don’t know.] These have not been studied in rats or mice. We don’t have names for them.”

Inconsistent potency is another issue. A testing lab at Virginia Commonwealth University found that some products on the market contained up to 10 times more delta-8 than what the package claimed. 

“That’s extremely common because the unregulated market doesn’t really know how much of their active ingredient they should put into their product,” Poe said. “And so what do they do? They make them strong.”

Cannabinoid-induced psychosis symptoms such as hallucinations, delusions, intense fear, anxiety and paranoia are common, Poe said. If inhaled, the hemp products can break down into a highly toxic gas called Ketene, which can cause lung inflammation and lead to illnesses like pneumonia and bronchitis, said Poe. 

“Many hemp companies use good manufacturing practices that promote safe products,” said Miller, the lawyer for the hemp industry trade group. “Some bad apples don’t.”

Regulatory confusion

Some states have made attempts to distinguish between cannabis and hemp-derived compounds, and legislate them appropriately. 

Alabama passed a medical marijuana bill in 2021, but lawsuits and concerns about safety have stalled the rollout. No pot farms or dispensaries have been allowed to operate in the state. Lawmakers passed an age restriction for delta-8 last year that regulates products like tobacco, putting them behind the counters at gas stations and limiting their sale to those 21 and older.

The Examination
In Alabama, delta-8 products are regulated like tobacco products, limiting their sale at gas stations and stores to those 21 and older.Photo by Tamika Moore for

In Wisconsin, efforts to legalize marijuana, for medical or recreational purposes, have failed repeatedly, even as neighboring states have fully legalized weed. So far, lawmakers have taken no steps to regulate the influx of delta-8 and products like it.

Other states have banned or severely restricted the sale of hemp products, or have taken action to regulate how they are sold. 

In February, California Assembly member Cecelia Aguiar-Curry introduced a bill to prevent the manufacture, distribution, or sale of hemp products that contain “synthetically derived cannabinoids.” 

Because the compound in delta-8 is structurally similar to the primary psychoactive compound in cannabis it is possible to trigger a positive on a drug test, which could have serious implications, particularly in states where cannabis is illegal. 

New compounds on the market

As states and the nation grapple with how to monitor hemp products like delta-8, new compounds are popping up, and with them new reports of unwanted highs and scary experiences. 

Health agencies are beginning to collect reports of harm from these newer compounds. In 2021, 100% of exposures reported to U.S. poison control centers were delta-8 related. By October last year, that percentage fell to about 80%. 

Many are completely synthetic and even more psychoactive than delta-8, experts say. These include products containing compounds called HHC, THC-JD, and THC-B. Even “hemp-derived delta-9” products are now widely available for sale — some contain even more THC than would be allowed in legal marijuana states.

Consumers are left guessing about what they are buying. “Is delta-8 safe,” is one of the first results that appears on Google when the name is keyed in. 

With conflicting and sometimes incorrect information about the potency of products, customers often rely on shopkeepers and each other to estimate what to buy and how much to take. 

 “I went into a shop in the panhandle of Florida,” said Virginia Guy, executive director of the Drug Education Council in south Alabama. “I said, ‘I’m not sleeping well, how would you tell me to use this?’ He said, ‘Take this gummy, but just eat a little of it and see what it does to you.’ 

“It’s all just experimental and it’s all just guesswork.”

The Examination

Ashley Okwuosa

Ashley Okwuosa is a reporter at The Examination.

Amy Yurkanin

Amy Yurkanin is a senior reporter at covering health care and women’s issues.

John Diedrich

John Diedrich is an investigative reporter at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.