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Reading Legal Cannabinoid Labels

Reading Legal Cannabinoid Labels

How to Read Legal Cannabinoid Labels
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When it comes to legal cannabinoid products, consumer confusion can be a serious cause for concern. 

As individual states legalize cannabis use in direct opposition of federal law, there has yet to emerge a single standardized labeling system for cannabis goods; what one state requires may be completely different from another state’s laws, and what may be legal to consume in one state may be completely illegal in another. When you combine the growing world of legal cannabinoids (CBD, Delta 8 THC, and the like) into the mix, things don’t get any easier.

In today’s piece we’ll be taking a look at what you, as a cannabinoid consumer, should know about reading labels on your potential purchases. We’ll go over why it’s important to be aware, what some differences are between various states, and give a few basic, fairly-universal things to watch out for. Let’s dig in.

A scientist, by Talha Hassan via Unsplash

Why Understanding Cannabis Labels is Important​

For any consumable good you can buy, be it a bottle of water or a candy bar, there are federally-mandated directions as to what must be included on the packaging: Nutritional information, ingredients lists, and the like. As currently stands these mandates do not exist for cannabis, as cannabis is still considered a Schedule 1 drug inside the United States.

Individual states that have legalized cannabis have typically included directives in their laws saying that packaging for any cannabis goods sold within state bounds must have specific information and/or symbols. But, as mentioned in the intro, this can vary heavily from state-to-state, and even states that have labeling requirements for cannabis-related goods may have completely different (or non-existent) requirements for cannabinoids such as CBD.

Most important, and fairly universal for containing either Delta 9 THC and/or CBD, are two things: The amount of cannabinoid content a product contains, and the verified laboratory testing results for the cannabinoids used within. We’ll go over both below.

How Much Cannabinoid Content Is Inside?​

Though other ingredients are just as important, when buying a cannabinoid-based good the actual cannabinoid content is likely to be the biggest thought on the purchaser’s mind.

Nearly all cannabis-related products, be they flower, skin creams, or chocolates, will have the amount of THC or CBD contained within (or whatever cannabinoid you happen to be consuming) listed on it’s packaging. 

This will typically differ between smokable flower and products that use cannabis concentrates (IE: edibles, topicals, etc.), in that flower will usually be listed in a percentage-based rating, while concentrates are typically listed as a per-milligram amount.

hemp product label with no thc
A sample product label, for a CBD skin lotion.

How To Read Cannabinoid Content

When looking at a percentage-based amount, this number is intended to denote the amount per-part of a specific cannabinoid (IE: CBD) contained within the product’s total chemical content (cannabinoids & terpenes alike). 

As an example, if a label says a good contains “22% Delta 9 THC” that would mean that out of its total chemical makeup, D9 THC makes up 22% (meanwhile CBD may make up another 3%, while CBN may take up another 1.5%). This is most commonly used in flower or otherwise unprocessed cannabis, to give a rough idea of how “strong” the potential effects may be.

Edibles and other goods that contain cannabis concentrates/extracts are usually listed in a per-milligram amount. This is because the cannabinoid amount contained within remains the same regardless of how large the actual product is; 50mg of CBD in a bottle of 1oz skin cream is the same amount as 50mg of CBD in a 10oz bottle. The ratios change, but the exact cannabinoid amount does not.

(Editor’s Note: Though the basic assumption of “higher number, stronger effect” is mostly true for cannabis products, there is a lot of personal trial-and-error in finding the right dosage amount for your individual needs.)

Third-Party Testing & Certificates of Analysis

Just as important as dosage amount is ensuring the product you’re purchasing has been produced in a clean, safe manner. 

We go into this in further detail in our article on “Quality Control & Cannabis Products” but in brief, given the lack of a nation-wide bureau overseeing growing & manufacturing processes for cannabinoid-related goods, it’s important to know exactly what you’re buying.

Like much other flora (and fauna alike), cannabis plants will absorb both nutrients and whatever other trace materials happen to be present in the environment they reside in. 

As an example, if the soil the cannabis is grown in contains amounts of toxic metals, at least some of those metals will be transferred into the plant; when it comes to certain metals, such as mercury, this is highly dangerous.

Unfortunately, tales of contaminated cannabis goods are far from uncommon. “Legal cannabinoid” goods containing CBD and Delta 8 THC have routinely been discovered with amounts of Delta 9 THC far above the federally allowed limit of 0.3%, and that’s far from the worst that can occur. 

In 2019, a rash of hospitalizations and deaths occurred due to “weed vape carts” containing untested & unsafe binding agents. Harmful pesticides can be used on crops, ending up in the final product. Lack of sanitation can lead to pest infestations or toxic molds. There is, sadly, no end of scary stuff when it comes to the world of legal cannabis.

A sample COA from cbdistillery.com proving that their products are safe
A sample COA from cbdistillery.com proving that their products are safe

How Cannabis & Hemp Are Tested

There is an important tool in the consumer’s pocket that can help ensure the product they receive is clean and safe to consume, however: The third-party laboratory analysis.

Though not a requirement, many cannabis & CBD manufacturers will voluntarily submit their products to regular laboratory tests. 

These tests, using a method known as “gas chromatography“, measure the individual chemical makeup of an object, letting researchers know not only the exact ratio of cannabinoids but also what terpenes are present and in what amounts. GC tests will also check for common contaminants (such as the aforementioned heavy metals & pesticides).

Once a cannabis producer has obtained the results of these tests they are then made publicly available (typically on their company website) as a “certificate of analysis”, or “CoA”. These CoAs will give the reader the harvest/batch number of the tested sample, a full breakdown of components tested for, and a precise amount of those components present. 

What CoA Tests Do (& Don’t Do)

CoA tests not only give consumers guarantees that their cannabis-related goods aren’t contaminated with unwanted chemicals, but also give the manufacturers a reliable way to determine exactly what the ratio of cannabinoids is in any product they produce. 

Without these sorts of tests, the pack of THC gummies you picked up at the dispensary could have 20mg of THC, 2mg of THC, or 2000mg of CBD instead. CoAs ultimately work to provide safe, reliable, consistent products for the end consumer.

This process isn’t perfect, and in many cases won’t check for potential contamination post-harvest of the plant, as samples sent off for testing are often taken shortly after the plant is harvested, and before it spends any significant amount of time in storage. 

Even with some flaws, though, chromatographic testing is an excellent step toward ensuring that the consumer can have a measure of confidence in what they’re about to buy.

Tests such as these are typically done by “third parties”, meaning laboratories not affiliated with or tied to the production company. This is done to ensure a certain level of accountability in the analysis process, with the assumption that a lab with no relation to the manufacturer can be trusted to produce reliable, accurate results.

As a general rule, unless the product you intend to purchase has a full, third-party certificate of analysis available for public viewing, we recommend against buying their product. No CoA, no sale.

Wrapping Up

Though this can all be very confusing and frustrating, really there are only three major points to take away from today’s article:

#1: Before purchasing any cannabis product make sure you are familiar with your state’s local requirements.

Each state with either medical or recreational cannabis use will likely have some, if even slight, variation in their labeling. Most states will have a publicly available website with detailed information on what cannabis labels must look; searching the internet for your state and “cannabis labels” will likely yield results.

#2: Know your preferred dosage amount, and how much to expect within a single serving. 

Dosage amounts for cannabis flower can vary, due to their natural/organic nature & somewhat chaotic method of consumption, but most cannabis concentrate products will be reliable in containing the amount of THC or CBD listed on the package.

And lastly, #3: Always search for a third-party verified laboratory result, typically displayed as a “certificate of analysis”. 

Finding these tests on a manufacturer’s label or website can help you not only feel safer, but be better armed with knowledge when walking into your local dispensary. 

However you choose to medicate or elevate, we hope our article has helped to make you feel like a more informed consumer. Until next time!

Dr Bryan Doner, medical advisor to the High There staff.
This article has been reviewed by Dr. Bryan Doner, medical advisor to the High There staff & editorial team.

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