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Cannabis Labels 101: How to Read What's in Your Weed

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Education Posted Nov 20 2020

Whether you live in California or Connecticut, cannabis sellers have been using strain names to describe their bud for decades. Now, as America continues to dive headfirst into cannabis legalization, those strain names have taken on a new life in bold, graphic fonts affixed to heavy glass jars and shiny mylar bags. Frankly, most legal weed packaging these days would fit in perfectly at your favorite boutique or organic food market.

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More than just strain names and classy containers, the labels on legal cannabis products are now packed with more information than ever before. From product type and weight to cannabinoid percentages, specific terpenes, and much, much more, it is safe to say that dispensaries have graduated well past the classic zip-lock baggie.

With so many numbers, percentages, and complicated names on every package, though, it can be hard to know exactly what you're buying. After all, questions like "What is TAC in weed?" and "How are adult-use weed labels different from medical marijuana labels?" are still relatively new inquiries for most marijuana smokers. Luckily, we're here to help, with a complete breakdown of the stats, terms, complications, and importance of marijuana labeling literacy.

Lack of Labeling Standards Across States

Depending on where you live, cannabis legalization can either feel like a normal part of everyday life or a far-off pipe dream. Thanks to that piecemeal legalization landscape, there are still no overarching regulations for cannabis packaging and labeling.

Thankfully, most states with either a medical or adult-use cannabis program require at least some form of laboratory testing and subsequent package labeling. But while California cannabis companies are required to include cannabinoid quantities as a percentage of the total product, cannabis businesses in Pennsylvania's medical program are only required to include cannabinoid presence in milligrams. In Washington State, businesses are required to include the product's CBD and THC content, but also the marijuana TAC, or total activated cannabinoids, a composite number showing the full amount of THC, CBD, CBN, and CBG as a percentage of the full product.

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In addition to variance in state-specific legal labeling regulations, different cannabis companies within any given state also include slightly altered information from brand to brand. For example, even when it is not required, some cannabis companies make a point to include terpene percentages, particularly for extracts and vape cartridges, while other licensed businesses either do not include terp quantities on the label.

Still, despite a lack of labeling standardization across states and individual manufacturers, most legal weed programs mandate a similar mix of labeling standards, and with a little bit of guidance, it should be relatively easy to compare an eighth of flower bought in California to a similar strain purchased in Massachusetts.

Why Marijuana Labeling Is So Important?

Like any products we consume, it is important to know exactly what is in our cannabis. And while you may be able to tell a lot about weed by looking at bud structure, color, and visible trichomes, marijuana's expanding mainstream appeal and immense product selections have made cannabis testing and labeling more important than ever.

For cannabis users of every experience level, proper product labeling creates more informed consumers. Labeling allows cannabis shoppers to compare and contrast strains, brands, and product types on an even playing field. So if you're after the most potent product in the store, THC percentages will help you find the perfect strain for that super stoned feeling. If you're in the mood for a full-spectrum tincture or topical, cannabinoid and terpene contents will help separate the gimmicks from the good stuff. And if you're looking for a vape cartridge, even the simplest weight labels will help you separate 500mg carts from 1000mg vapes.

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Speaking of vape cartridges, labeling is also important to ensure the safety of cannabis products. On top of product info, cannabis labels contain state-specific warnings and legal wording. During last year's vape illness crisis, state-legal cannabis operators across the country urged consumers to avoid black market products and created special labels and QR codes to defend against counterfeits.

Eventually, America's web of state-specific cannabis legalization laws will give way to overarching federal legalization. And when that time finally comes, federal organizations like the FDA or USDA will be responsible for crafting and enforcing cannabis packaging and labeling standards. Current marijuana labels will no-doubt inform those federal regulations, and creating complete and comprehensive labels for state-specific industries in the meantime will both spread knowledge aboutcannabis meaning and continually raise expectations for transparency and quality assurance.

What You Will Find on Recreational and Medical Cannabis Labels?

Alright, let's get down to the brass tax - what exactly should you be looking for on a cannabis label?

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First, look for the product weight. If you are buying flower, this will probably be shown in grams or ounces. Vape cartridges will usually be labeled in milligrams, with most carts packaged in either 500mg or 1000mg quantities. Concentrates are weighed in grams and usually sold in one-gram packages, but can also be sold in half-gram or even 3.5-gram jars. Topicals and tinctures are usually measured in ounces, although sometimes can be described in milligrams or milliliters respectively. Lastly, edible labels are generally marked with a total weight, but more focus is given to cannabinoid content by weight. 

Whether they are represented in the percentage of the total weight or total milligrams, nearly every product in the legal cannabis marketplace includes THC and CBD levels. If you want to convert cannabinoid weight into a percentage, simply divide the THC or CBD content by the product's total weight. To convert a percentage into total weight, simply invert the math.

Outside of THC and CBD, many products will contain a separate category for THCA. So, what's the deal with THCA vs. THC? THCA is an acidic THC precursor compound that does not cause intoxication. THC, on the other hand, is a smaller molecule that does get you high. When THCA is decarboxylated, or heated past 221 degrees Fahrenheit, THCA is converted to THC. So while flower or live resin concentrates will likely be labeled with high THCA numbers and low THC quantities, smoking or vaporizing the product will quickly convert to THC. Lastly, when it comes to cannabinoids, as we discussed earlier, some cannabis labels will also include a TAC number that indicates the combined quantity of THC, CBD, and minor cannabinoids like CBG and CBN.

Once you know how potent your cannabis is, check for the strain type and, if they're available, specific terpenes. Most legal weed products will be labeled either Sativa, Indica, or hybrid. On a deeper level, though, those determinations are based on specific blends of natural flavonoids called terpenes. If you want an even more in-depth look at the smell, flavor, and psychological effects of your next purchase, look for labeled quantities of specific terpenes like linalool, caryophyllene, and myrcene.

Once you know the product type, strain, weight, cannabinoid content, and terpene make-up, you're ready to decide which type of weed is best for you.

What part of the cannabis label do you look towards to best inform your dispensary purchases? THC content? Terpenes? TAC? Let us know in the comments below!

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