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How to easily understand cannabis product labels

Do you find cannabis labels confusing? In this post, we’ll show you how to easily interpret the data and information.

Nutritionists have tried teaching us how to read labels on packaging for many years, yet they still seem to cause problems for many. For cannabis labels, that’s perfectly understandable – this newly-structured industry is introducing people to a wealth of new compounds. On the surface, the plethora of data may appear over the top, but as you become better acquainted with the cannabis plant, you’ll recognize more and more of the compounds listed and their respective abbreviations. Let’s get straight into the decoding process.

Why labels on cannabis products are necessary

The products you’ll find being sold at cannabis dispensaries, pharmacies and on reputable online stores will have been laboratory tested, usually independently. The results of these tests are typically available in a document if requested. But there’s also plenty to glean from the label itself, which will look like those you see on packaged foodstuffs.

There’s a lot of useful information on cannabis product label – you’ll be made aware if there was any mold on the cannabis plant used, and whether any pesticides were used during cultivation. And you’ll get a cannabinoid profile chart, showing you the exact percentages of CBD, THC and other cannabinoids in the product, from which you can deduce potency and what ailments it may treat.

This information gives you a much better idea of the nuances of a strain or cannabis product than simply knowing if it’s indica or sativa dominant. Consider this: a strain with 20 percent THC and 3 percent CBD will produce vastly different effects to a strain with 20 percent THC and 0 percent CBD, even though both would be considered sativa-dominant.

Making sense of cannabis labels

Every state that has enacted cannabis legislation will have its own laws surround labelling. Cannabis has not been legalized at federal level, and subsequently standardization on labelling is yet to be applied across the nations. Some states set stricter requirements on labelling for medical cannabis products than others. In states that don’t have firm guidelines, there’s no way of finding out whether you’re buying a safe and high-quality product or not.

Products that have been lab-tested by an independent body are the gold standard. With these, you can be sure that the data on the label is genuine and accurate, and you’ll be informed of any imperfections in the manufacturing process. Good labelling will help you steer clear from contaminated cannabis. Laboratory testing data is often available for free on the internet, but it’s worth researching your state for test centers to find more relatable information.

However, just because you know a label is giving you truthful and precise data doesn’t mean it’s easy to read. This is how you can read the information on your label correctly.

General information

You don’t need us to explain every piece of information found on the label of a cannabis product, but let’s go through it for clarification purposes:

  • Name of strain
  • Indica or sativa?
  • Where was it grown and which company grew it?
  • Date of testing
  • Who tested the products?
  • How long is testing data valid for?
  • A comment on how product complies with state law
  • Total THC content

The information on total THC content shows you how much of THC is in the product and can be used. For recreational users, this is the nugget of data that holds the most relevance, as it’s an indication of just how potent its psychoactive properties are. The strongest high-THC strains can exceed 20 percent THC.

The amount of THC in edible products tends to be stated in milligrams. Milligrams are slightly harder to judge than percentages when deciding how much THC to take, but a first-time user should consume no more than 10mg THC.

However, strong edibles that are popular with chronic pain patients can contain 100mg THC or more, depending on state regulations. For a recreational dose, 20mg is about right.

Understanding Δ9-THCA (delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinolic acid)

Tetrahydrocannabinolic acid (THCA) is cannabis in its pre-activated, raw, acidic state. THCa is not psychoactive but possesses many of the therapeutic benefits of THC. To enjoy a psychoactive experience from THC, it must be activated by decarboxylation (heating).

When we smoke or vape cannabis, or infuse it into butter for edibles, we are decarboxylating the herb, thereby making it psychoactive. That’s why many people choose the simple smoking method when they want to get stoned. When a label tells you how much THCA is present in a strain of bud, it’s essentially telling you how much THC will be activated when you heat the herb.

Δ9-THC

THC is activated by heating, however THCA can also convert to its psychoactive state through age. The curation and aging of cannabis sees some THCA molecules break down into THC. A good label should show you how much THCA and how much THC is in a strain, which has already converted through aging. The active percentage of THC is sometimes referred to as ‘THC decarb’. The total THC percentage is made up of the percentages of both THC and THCA.

Most strains you find in dispensaries will only have low percentages of activated THC, and you may not even get the benefit of this as it commonly burns off when heated.

CBDA

CBDA is like THCA, in that it is the pre-activated state of a more familiar cannabinoid – in this case, cannabidiol (CBD). Raw CBDA converts to CBD when heated, although both compounds are non-psychoactive. CBD is best known for having a myriad of medicinal properties. In terms of your high, increased concentrations of CBD will lead to a mellower high. The more CBD in a strain, the less psychoactive it tends to be.

CBD

The ‘CBD’ category on the labels details the amount of activated CBD that the product contains – this is given either in milligrams or as a percentage. Some products will separate out CBDA and CBD on the label, whereas others just state the overall CBD.

Other cannabinoids in cannabis products

THC and CBD are cannabinoids, but cannabis contains more than 100 of these unique and wondrous compounds. Cannabinoids are the chemicals in cannabis that gives the plants its therapeutic properties. Less common non-psychoactive cannabinoids include CBC, CBG and CBN, while THCV is considered a more psychoactive compound than THC. It’s likely that you’ll see all these cannabinoids listed on a label. They have some extraordinary benefits and help facilitate the ‘entourage effect’ – it’s certainly worth harnessing the entire medical potential of marijuana.

Other labels may just state the total number of cannabinoids that are found in a product or strain of cannabis. This will cover CBD, THC, CBG, THCV – everything! The more cannabinoids present in a strain, the more psychoactive it often is. This potency does not just manifest itself in enhanced psychoactive effects, but the therapeutic potential may also be increased. The synergy of the ‘entourage effect’ suggests that cannabinoids mingle with each other to boost the overall effects, which explains why strains with more cannabinoids are more effective.

No two cannabinoids are the same, and these chemical differences – however slight – can cause big changes in the benefits that a compound may offer.

Is your product contaminated with pesticides?

It is critical that you know whether the product you are purchasing was made using pesticides, insecticides or any other contaminating substances – and the only way you can find this out is on the label. Some labels will provide a figure on the total amount of pesticide residue in a strain. A product must contain less than 0.1 pesticide parts per million to successfully past a test. Not all labels do this, however – on some, you will just be told if the product passed or not.

Is mold or mildew on your weed?

Finding mold or mildew on your marijuana is a cause for concern, and something you should definitely check for on the label. Most approved cannabis products sail through microbiology tests, which often search for molds, yeast, aerobic bacteria such as aerobic bacteria and a host of other bacterial colonies.

A label will either state the amount of mold or mildew present, or simply confirm if it passed the microbiology test. States have differing laws on acceptable microbial levels found in cannabis products. Oregon takes a remarkably relaxed position in this department and does not demand tests for pathogenic bacteria.

More things to look out for

The following things aren’t required to be mentioned on the product label, however some companies choose to provide this data anyway in the name of transparency. You may also find this information if you seek out the full lab test reports.

Terpenes: Aroma compounds that also contain therapeutic properties

Residual solvents: Some concentrate products contain residual solvents, which may be cause for concern

Mycotoxin: A toxic substance created by fungus

Perhaps this article has opened your eyes to the full complexity of the cannabis plant you love to consume. Having a good knowledge of the plant can help you to understand the labels better and improve your experience with the herb. Being able to interpret the labelling gives you peace of mind that the product you are using is safe and that it will administer effects that you desire. If you’re hesitant about putting new substances into your body, reading a lab test report allows you to analyze cannabis for what it is, without the stigma.

Do you read the product labels when buying cannabis? If so, what do you look out for? Let us know by leaving a comment!

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