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How to navigate cannabis labels

A break-down of common packaging terminology
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At times it feels like cannabis product labels are designed to confuse the consumer. There are also no standard label requirements between countries or even states. Combined with the fact that producers themselves have their own methodology for testing the THC and CBD content in their products, it can be challenging to figure out what you are buying. While we can’t determine which producers base their figures on per batch testing, or a greater average, we can clarify how to read these numbers and what the other standard nomenclature found on a label relates to. 

While we can’t break down every jurisdiction’s labeling requirements, we will go over one example that covers commonly used wording and figures, which should give you the ability to navigate most cannabis labels. For this guide, we’ll focus on the State of California.

California separates cannabis products into two broad categories with different labeling requirements.

Non-manufactured Cannabis Products include any product made only from raw plant materials such as flower, pre-rolls, and seeds. Pre-rolls cannot be infused and still fall under this category.

Manufactured Cannabis Products use cannabis extracts and non-cannabis ingredients to make a finished product, including edibles, drinks, and cannabis concentrates.

Non-Manufactured Cannabis Products & Shared Nomenclature

All fields required for a flower-based product are also required for extracts and edibles, so we won’t cover them twice.

We’ll start by looking at the product details typically found on the front of a package and go through each of the main terms. The California Department of Public Health requires each item that we will cover, and as such, will be found on any legal cannabis flower product in the state.

Product Identifier - This is the description of the contained cannabis product. If you’re trying to figure out whether the product is the whole flower, pre-rolls, seeds, extracts, or edibles, this is where to look.

Net Weight - The amount of product contained is displayed in both imperial and metric units of measurement. For reference, an ounce of cannabis is 28.35 grams, commonly rounded down to 28g.

California’s Universal Symbol - While the requirement of this symbol might not be relevant to you as a consumer, its presence gives us a hint as to the product's legal status. It exists simply to indicate that the product you are buying contains cannabis or its derivatives.

Let’s take a look at the ‘Informational Panel' contents. The information contained here is often kept on a separate label on the backside of the packaging, but, as in this case, all of the required information can be placed on a single label.

UID Number - A unique identifier that allows the specific package to be tracked through California’s tracking system.

Licensee Name and Number or Website - Have an issue with the quality, weight, or content? This is where you’ll find the name of the licensee along with contact information. It’s important to note that the licensee is not necessarily the same as the grower. Many cultivators use licensed third-party distributors to package their products.

Date of Packaging - The keyword here is ‘Packaging’; this is not the date the product was cultivated or even processed. It does not necessarily indicate the freshness of the product, although it will tell you how long a package may have been sitting on a retail shelf.

Lastly, all cannabis products must include California’s government warning, which covers age requirements (21+), Cannabis’ effects on cognitive ability relating to the operation of vehicles or machinery, and other warnings commonly associated with age-restricted products.

Cannabinoid Content

THC and CBD Content - While all cannabis products must display cannabinoid content, they are expressed in different formats depending on the product category. THC and CBD content must be described as a percentage of the total product for buds or pre-rolls. In contrast, cannabis derivative-based products must be expressed in milligrams of the entire product. Many manufacturers will display both the content as a percentage and in mg. 

As consumers, we often look for specific ratios between CBD and THC to achieve particular effects (read Alexander’s informative piece on the Entourage Effect), or we are looking to compare the level of psychoactive effects of different cannabis products. This is the only label requirement that doesn’t have a specific place on the packaging and may be shown on either the primary or information panel (front or back). 

Manufactured Cannabis Products

Extracts, Edibles, and other products made from Cannabis derivatives all have the same labeling requirements as non-manufactured products. The front of the package looks almost identical in its content barring one item, which only applies to edibles.

The informational panel has some additional requirements that contain relevant info for you, the consumer. Many of these additional labeling requirements apply only to specific cannabis derivative product categories, but it’s essential to understand why they are there.

Manufacturer Name and Contact Information - for Manufactured products, the licensee name is replaced with the manufacturer name as it is understood that the cultivator of the cannabis used in these products isn’t necessarily the manufacturer of the finished product, nor do they necessarily have a license to conduct extractions.

Batch/Lot Number - In addition to the UID requirements of flower products, extracts and edibles must also indicate the batch or lot number, likely to simplify product recalls. While this isn’t immediately relevant to the consumer, if you have a quality issue with a product, this can help a manufacturer track down the source of the problem.

Instructions for User - While it might seem obvious that you shouldn’t consume the contents of a vape cartridge orally, if you are new to cannabis products, instructions for how a particular manufactured product should be consumed can be helpful.

List of All Ingredients - Edibles and certain extract products contain more than just cannabis. Like any food item, manufacturers must list every ingredient. From a consumer perspective, it’s good to know what you are consuming. And, just because a component isn’t a common allergen does not mean people can’t be allergic to it.

The following four items you might find on a cannabis derivative product may or may not be there, depending on the specific content. Most of these are going to apply only to edibles and drinks.

Allergens - If you are allergic to any major food allergens, this is the place to find them. As with any food product, these will always be listed.

Artificial Food Colorings - If all-natural ingredients are a deciding factor in which producers you want to give your money to, this is an important one to take a close look at.

Expiration, Use-by, or Best-by Date - Dry flower products and seeds are exempt from this requirement as cannabis itself hasn’t been proven to expire. Yes, it gets dry and harsh, but it doesn’t expire in the traditional sense. Manufactured cannabis products can contain many non-cannabis ingredients that makeup products that do expire. 

Beyond the required aspects of a cannabis label, some manufacturers opt to include additional information about the particular product or strain. One of the most common things a cultivator will add is the specific terpenes that a particular strain contains, commonly referred to as the terpene profile.