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Meds Decoding Cannabis Labels

momofthegoons

Vapor Accessory Addict
Staff member
How To Decode Cannabis Labels: Here’s Everything You Need To Know

If you’ve ever wondered, “What the heck are all of these numbers for?” after looking at a cannabis labels, this article is for you.


We’ve had decades of education on how to read nutrition labels, and many people still find them confusing. Cannabis labeling has only become the norm over the past few years. Further, the percentages and chemicals listed may seem way too scientific to the average consumer. What do all of these abbreviations mean anyway? Here’s how to decode your cannabis labels.


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Why labels are important
When you go into a dispensary or compassion center, products that have been laboratory tested typically feature labels similar to what you’d find on packaged foods.

Cannabis labels give you all kinds of information. They can tell you whether or not the product you’re picking up has been infected with mold. They’ll let you know whether or not traces of residual pesticide were found on the strain. They’ll also tell you how much THC, CBD, and other cannabinoids are actually available for use.

You can make the argument that understanding these cannabis labels gives you a lot more information about the type of high the strain provides than it’s indica/sativa class alone. For example, a strain that features a mere 3% CBD content will produce different effects than one that has 0%, even if the latter is thought to be the same strain.

Decoding cannabis labels

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Each state has it’s own unique labeling laws. This means that there isn’t nationwide standardization for what kinds of information should be present on cannabis labels. Further, some states do not have rigorous testing requirements for medical cannabis products. In these cases, you essentially have no idea whether or not what the package or budtender tells you is actually accurate.

If possible, always opt for products that have been laboratory tested. Not only will this give you an idea of what to expect from the product, but it will also help you avoid contaminated bud. Labs typically publish testing data online, but you’ll have to do some research to find testing centers in your particular region.

But, even with readily available testing information, labels can be a bit confusing. Here is a handy guide to help you understand what you’re actually getting:

General label information

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There are a few simple things on labels that are mostly self-explanatory. But, for information’s sake, here’s what they are:

  • Strain name
  • Who grew the strain
  • The indica/sativa class
  • The date the strain was tested
  • Testing lab name and information
  • The expiration date of the testing results (this is NOT the expiration date of the cannabis product)
  • Information on legal compliance with state law
Total THC

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Total THC (or THC maximum) represents the total amount of THC that is available for use. This is the number most looked at by folks looking to buy. The total THC content gives you a good idea about the level of psychoactivity of the strain. High THC strains typically have around 18 to 20+ percent total THC.

For edible products, this number is often represented in milligrams. The milligram measurement is a bit more difficult to judge on behalf of the consumer. Generally, a dose for an inexperienced cannabis user is thought to be about 10mg of THC.

Edibles made with cancer patients in mind can feature a whopping 100+ milligrams of THC in some states. If you’re looking for a powerful high, 20mg is thought to be a large dose.


Δ9-THCA

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THCA refers to tetrahydrocannabinolic acid. Simply stated, this is the raw form of THC and it is non-psychoactive. In order to experience the psychoactive effects of THC, you need to convert it from its acid form. You do this through the process of decarboxylation.

The words may sound fancy, but the process is super simple. To make THC psychoactive, you have to heat it. That’s why you smoke or bake cannabis to feel high. On a cannabis label, the total amount of THCA lets you know how much psychoactive THC there will be once the herb is heated. The more THCA, the more psychoactive the strain when you heat it up.

Δ9-THC

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Heating cannabis activates THC. But, there’s another way the psychoactive thrives: aging. When cannabis is aged and cured, some of the THCA breaks down and turns into plain ol’ THC. Cannabis labels often list the amount of THC-acid available for use, as well as the amount of acid that has already been converted through the drying process.

The amount of activated THC on dried strains typically isn’t very high. Some of this may also burn off when you heat the cannabis with high temperatures once you get home. Active THC percentages may also be written as THC Decarb. Together, THCA and THC percentages make up the total THC percentage.

Some companies (like the one shown above) will just list the total amount of THC as one number.

CBDA

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Similar to THCA, the amount of CBDA in a strain tells you its CBD potential. CBDA stands for cannabidiol acid. This is raw CBD. When you heat CBDA, it converts into non-psychoactive CBD. Strains high in CBD have a wealth of medicinal properties. The more CBD a strain contains, the mellower the overall high will be. Strains with higher levels of CBD and CBDA than THC are less likely to be psychoactive.

CBD

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You’ve probably guessed it… The CBD percentage or milligram amount listed on a label tells you the amount of activated CBD present in the product. Totals of CBD and CBDA levels make up the total CBD percentage available to consumers.

Other cannabinoids

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Both THC and CBD are cannabinoids. Cannabinoids are the plant chemicals that engage with our bodies and give cannabis its medicinal properties. Levels of other cannabinoids like Δ8-THC, THCV, CBN, CBG, and CBC may also be present on a label. While these cannabinoids are less common, they have some powerful health benefits that you won’t want to miss.

For more information on these additional cannabinoids, refer to our article Top 10 Cannabinoids & What They Do.


Total cannabinoids

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Some labels may list the total number of cannabinoids present in the strain. This number includes all THC, CBD, and any other cannabinoids that may be present. Strains with extremely high numbers of total cannabinoids are incredibly potent. Not necessarily potent because of their psychoactive potential, but because of the sheer number of different compounds available for use.

As mentioned earlier, each cannabinoid has its own unique medical benefits. The greater the cannabinoid diversity in a strain, the more health benefits it can express.

Pesticide

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This one is very important. If your bud didn’t come with a label, there’s no way of knowing whether or not it has been contaminated with pesticides or insecticides. Some labels list the amount of pesticide residue found in the bud. In order for a product to pass a pesticide test, levels must be under 0.1 parts per million.

Most labels just state whether or not a product has passed. If they have passed, they met the above criteria.

Mold/Mildew

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The presence of molds and mildews are another thing to be concerned about. Cannabis that has been tested and made it onto dispensary shelves will typically pass tests for microbiology. Levels of aerobic bacteria (E. coli, Salmonella, etc.), yeasts and molds, and other large bacterial colonies are often included in microbiology screens.

Some labels will simply tell you whether or not a strain has passed with acceptable levels of microbes. Others may list an exact amount. Restrictions for microbial levels are different from state to state. Oregon, for example, does not require tests for pathogenic bacteria.

A few other things

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These things are not often listed on dispensary labels, but they might be. If you visit a testing lab website, you may also find results of these tests listed.

  • Residual solvents (used in the making of BHO, Rick Simpson Oil, and other concentrates)
  • Terpenes (flavor and aroma compounds that add depth to a high and have additional medical benefits)
  • Mycotoxin (A substance produced by fungus)
As is probably obvious at this point, there’s more to your bud than you might expect. Learning to read cannabis labels is as important as understanding labels at the grocery store. To ensure that you’re getting a safe product that will give you the effects you like best, take a peak at testing results before you purchase.
 

momofthegoons

Vapor Accessory Addict
Staff member
THC Testing is Bullshit and You’re Getting Screwed

Beard bros Cannabis article for Neptune seed bank
20
Jul
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The sheer audacity of the claims seem to be careening ever more dangerously toward preposterous absurdity these days. Everywhere, in every rec-legal state, as the race for hip new genetics and the hypest flower reaches a feverish pitch you hear it: 30% THC is the new 20%. As every new state rec system comes online we see practically the same bell curve every time, ramping up sharply after the first six months to a year in. I read an article the other day about some furious, madcap new genetic in Illinois. The lab test results? Get ready, kids…THIRTY SEVEN POINT FIVE PERCENT THC!!! Crazy, right?

Wanna know what I thought? I stared blankly at the screen, motionless, for a second or two. Something carbonated and pressurized snapped in my brain, before I could hold it in.

Holy shit I fucking laughed. I laughed so goddamned hard I passed out in the kitchen. I think my neighbors still think I’m on meth from that day.

Because truly: I know this saga inside and out. All too well actually. One time at a spot I worked a while back, we had a Grease Monkey come in at 38.1%.

I just smoked some the other day. It was no better or worse than the 26.3% we got on the same strain, same room, one crop before. But I’ll tell you something: the day those lab results dropped, I drove dispensary to dispensary around the city of Portland, fielding frantic phone calls and all-caps texts from intake managers. I had the windows down, intermittently blasting Britney Spears and Slayer, shoving huge wads of cash in my pocket everywhere I went.

Laughing. My. Ass. Off.

How does this happen, exactly? Tell you what: you seem cool. I’ll let you in on a big, nasty-ass secret that’s going to get me in a lot of trouble with a lot of industry people.
The vast majority of 30% THC test scores on flower in the rec marketplace are UTTER BULLSHIT. The system is rotten and corrupt across the board. Testing labs have a financial imperative to compete to deliver the most inflated numbers possible, growers’ survival often depends on giving their business to the most crooked lab they can find. All these 30 percent test scores you’re seeing? Check the label: 90% of those are coming from a VERY small minority of testing facilities. You’re being lied to by unscrupulous factions of a desperately overcrowded industry, taken advantage of by cutthroat lab owners exploiting lackluster and vague state-mandated procedural testing guidelines. Furthermore, when you as a consumer ask your budtender for “Whatever the highest THC flower is” you are outing yourself as somebody who doesn’t really understand what comprises truly badass, enjoyable craft Cannabis. The THC numbers game is bad for the growers, bad for the plant and ultimately bad for the consumer. Today we’re going to talk about why this, how we’ve come to this point and actions we can all take to turn it around.
On with the shitshow…

THE HUSTLE
Let’s say you’re a licensed grower. You’ve got a certain number of pounds you need to sell, for a certain amount of money, to make a profit and stay afloat. Let’s say you grow some truly kickass top-shelf (Go, You!) and you’ve built up your name. You stop in for your weekly chat with an intake manager at a dispensary you regularly sell to, only this time they’ve got no room for you on their shelf.
Cannabis Nug Close Up, for Neptune Seed Bank
Turns out somebody else’s flower, some brownish nondescript mids from two seasons ago with no discernible nose, has taken your spot. The only reason? Theirs tests 32%. You ask which lab tested it, you and the intake manager share a knowing glance and a long groan. Is it better flower? Hell no. Will the consumer get a harsh, shitty experience? Absolutely. How do you keep your doors open and afford to continue producing something on the level that you’d actually want to smoke? You give it some thought. Your gardeners, office workers, trimmers and sales team are counting on you to have payroll covered. You’ve got a mortgage and a car and a family.

Enter: The Crooked Lab
Let’s say you’re a new testing facility. You’ve invested millions into your equipment and buildout, you’ve hired top notch lab techs. You open your doors, start seeing a trickle of business from growers. That trickle starts to die off. There’s this one lab across town, however, that despite a turnaround time on lab results of two weeks compared to your two days has all the business several labs could ever hope to have. Word on the street is they’ve got a sample collector in the field who’s got a “fast and loose” approach to how samples are taken and what THC numbers growers are getting in exchange for their extended wait time. You start looking at your bills, your payroll, your mortgage…and you have a long, sad, awkward talk with your field sample collector about ethics and the survival of the business.

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The grower meets the sample collector. There’s a nervous handshake. They eye each other up and down. They step into the office.

Instead of selecting a half ounce of buds at random from a fifteen pound bin, there’s a small jar on the table. In this jar are hand-selected top buds, busted up as small as possible, rolled in a healthy layer of kief. You can’t actually see the flower itself: these are essentially moonrocks.

Two weeks of pins and needles later, the tests come back: Thirty something percent, by God! Who knew? The grower hangs their head in shame but the lights are still running, employees still employed. The lab has scored a new business partner who is really something more of an addict to their services. Both parties’ livelihood and survival are fully dependent on the lies they’ve transacted, and both parties know it. That lie gets passed on to the dispensary, and then to you.

This happens every day. Everybody in the industry knows it.

To all my peers and friends who’ve provided for themselves and their families propagating this nonsense: Yeah, I’m saying it. We all should be. This has been coming a long time now. Let’s show some fucking balls. Let’s own up to our bullshit and conduct ourselves as honest businesspeople. Let’s get mad about these lies. Let’s Win.

THE LEGEND
There’s something we need to confront, as a culture of recreational Cannabis consumers.

It’s a theory we’ve operated under for a long, long time: The higher the THC, the “better” / “stronger” / “danker” the weed. The story of Cannabis has been portrayed under this narrative for quite a while now: I legit spent more time studying THC numbers in High Times throughout high school in the 90s than I did studying math (But not to worry: selling drugs got all my math skills right back in shape in the evenings after band and late detention).

It was an amazing concept, on paper: gas chromatography testing could accurately analyze the chemical components of a bud and provide a uniform, tangible concept of how utterly awesome Phish was going to be next weekend. I believed that shit like some folks believe Joseph Smith dictated the word of God directly out of a top hat using his mighty Urim and Thummim. I was a level 8 Thetan of what hip new genetics were going down in Amsterdam at the time. I pissed my friends off to no end with that noise. Some (most) of them still just barely tolerate my ass.

THE TRUTH
It turns out that as far as accurate testing is concerned, THC levels can vary wildly within an individual plant, let alone several samples taken from a bin. Numbers will be higher or lower depending on what part of the plant the flower grew on, what angle to the sun or light fixture it had, how much of the tested flower had a huge stem etcetcetc. Individual flowers on a plant can have range differential of as much as 12% – 15% depending on who you ask. What this means for the consumer is if 14 grams are being taken out of 15 pounds, which buds are chosen can in effect produce wildly different outcomes in the final cannabinoid testing numbers. The only way to generate a truly accurate and equitable THC percentage would be to grind up test the entire 15 pound batch, which sadly would leave nothing left for people to smoke. Which would suck: I do love to smoke.

To complicate the matter further, the advent of new scientific research and data has begun to disrupt and rewrite our concept of how Cannabis works. We now know THC is by far not the only factor to be considered in how high you get or what kind of effects you experience. More accurately, it was the first person to sign the guestlist at an extremely vivid and well-attended party. The “personality” of a high, the soaring / uplifting or couchlock / introverted nuances that determine true enjoyability and depth: this in fact has virtually nothing to do with cannabinoid content whatsoever. How cannabinoids bond with terpenes on their way to the brain: THISis the Magic. This is where that one time you got really, unbelievably high, happens. I’ll guarantee you: somewhere on a dispensary shelf there is a jar of Zkittles that tested at 12% THC that will rip your soul from your chest.

The idea that Cannabis can be judged on THC content alone is the 1980s tail-dragging dinosaur lumbering behind our swifter and more complete modern understanding of terpene interaction, the endocannabinoid system’s polyamorous affinity for a diverse stable of compounds and the demonstrable fact that the right genetics, in the right grower’s hands, can produce truly individual and inimitable Art.

Recently I had the opportunity to chat in depth on this topic with Portland’s own Dr. Adie Rae. Dr. Adie is a Cannabis pharmacologist, neuroscientist and one of the principal architects of the Cultivation Classic, the northwest’s premier yearly competition and expo of all things Craft Cannabis. She had some deep insights as to what produced winning entries from this year, exceptional cultivars that survived the rigors of double-blind evaluation through a pool of 150 independent judges analyzing entrants through an exhaustive list of variables and a final review by Cascadia Labs, widely regarded as one of the most legitimate and upstanding testing facilities in our state’s history.

“The single most important finding we came across this year is that of the top ten most enjoyable flowers, 70% of them had less than 20% THC,” she says. “In fact, one of these top-scoring cultivars only had 6.8% THC.”

“I completely understand what it is like to shop for the greatest value. But these results suggests that the greatest value is in a flower’s enjoyment, not its potency.”

I asked her if there were any further factors that stood out in determining overall enjoyment of a particular entry by the pool of judges.

“It looks like a strong predictive factor of a winning flower is a pleasant aroma. We found correlations between a nice aroma, a nice overall psychological effect, and euphoria. The nose truly knows! Obviously the aroma is driven by the terpenes, but it’s not just about which flower had the MOST terpenes. Rather, there is a very subjective, yet somehow agreed-upon idea of what smells good. This is really similar to perfume; there are thousands of perfumes out there that have sandalwood as the top ingredient by volume, but some of those perfumes smell divine, and others just smell like a bag of candy. It’s the overall formula, the ratio of the terpenes that somehow makes it enjoyable.”

Finally – and here’s the smoking bong of the matter – I asked her about a rather toothy and imposing elephant within our state’s testing community. I was curious: did Cascadia’s testing differ at all from testing accompanying flower into the entry process?

“As a part of the competition [entry] process, cultivators submitted their compliance results (certificates of analysis, demonstrating that the flowers had passed for pesticides etc.). After Cascadia ran each flower through a rigorous panel of cannabinoids and terpenes, I had an undergrad student of mine compare the original certificates of analyses with Cascadia’s. We found very profound differences in the results for some labs, whereas others were very similar to Cascadia’s. Specifically, we found one lab that reported higher THC values (but not CBD values) for EVERY SINGLE cultivar that it had analyzed. A lot of the THC values were 6-7 percentage points higher than what Cascadia found. On a consumer’s package, that could be the difference between a 14% THC flower and a 21% flower… that’s a major sales incentive at the dispensary counter. We were pretty alarmed by this, and we turned over the de-identified data set (no lab names) to the regulators in Oregon, with the hope that they would investigate the matter further.”

…And there, friends, you have it. This is actually happening.

In the end, a proper appraisal of fine Cannabis and a true understanding of its potential is in fact several dimensions more complex than judging fine wine. What does this mean for the refined consumer?

WHAT WE CAN ALL DO
Personally: I want Cannabis to be grown better, smoked better and enjoyed more thoroughly all around. You should, too. Here’s some small but concrete steps we can all take to get past the bullshit and make this happen.

To the public:
Most importantly, above all else: Trust your nose and your eyes before you trust lab results on a sheet of paper. In Weed, as in life, this very simple practice will get you much closer to where you need to be. Look past the business and into the Art. Find the growers whose work speaks to your senses. Get to know what they’re all about. In the end: your brain will thank you.

When you walk into a dispensary and see some flower you’re interested in, your first immediate questions should be 1) Who grew it; and 2) Who tested it. Bluntly put, dispensaries that can’t automatically answer both of these questions should endure the side-eye from every customer who walks in until they get their shit together. There’s IPA and then there’s Root + Branch Brewing’s “Do We Live in a Society of Spectacle?” IPA; the difference between them is not ABV. If you want to find something truly spectacular to write home about, train yourself to ask the right questions. You won’t be disappointed with the outcome.

Once you get to know your growers and the labs who test them, the patterns will undoubtedly begin to emerge. It’ll become readily apparent fairly quickly which growers are doing phenomenal work that sticks to your palate and illuminates your senses. I guarantee you’ll see a direct correlation between true, quality-grown Cannabis and a dedication to labs that promote raw honesty over fluffed numbers.

Bug your favorite growers on IG. Ask them about grow methods, terroir, who they test with and why. It’s your lungs and your brain. You deserve to know. Furthermore, when you find a budtender who can correlate these answers on the spot, throw an extra dollar in the tip jar: this is a person who actually gives a shit about our industry and we need to keep them around.

And at the end of the day, if you really don’t feel like you’re high enough with something the label is telling you is 15%: Take a second hit. Congrats! You’re at 30% now. Repeat as necessary. Heck, with the proper tenacity you’ll be soaring along at 120%, even 135% in no time…

To the dispensaries:
As I mentioned to your customers just now, make sure your budtenders are up on their game and know, intimately, the Cannabis they’re selling. Your growers should be stopping in to have chats with your staff about their practices. How they grow is just as important as what they grow and your staff needs to be savvy to this. It’s a clear mark of quality and pride to walk into a spot and see that they list, proudly, which growers they rep. The time has come to stop having the “Who’s killing it right now” conversation in private amongst ourselves as industry workers: even if it’s a $2 gram, there’s enough people growing rec so you should be stoked on WHICH $2 gram you’ve got to offer. This raw numbers game is killing all of us, yourselves included. Take pride in what you do and whom you choose to work with.

There’s a few shops out there that either downplay or don’t even show THC numbers on their shelves. You guys know who you are, and serious fucking kudos to you for going so far ahead of the curve. In a broader sense, anywhere that displays the name of the farm in a bigger font that the THC score: you’re on the right side of history. I’ll be stoked in five years when you’re still in business.

To the labs:
Take pride in your work and trust in science. We all KNOW the brick walls you’re up against and the very easy paths of darkness you can take to make all your problems go away. Get aggressive on social media and in person in dispensaries. Develop direct relationships with the general buying public. You need to hype yourselves just like any other business, it’s how you do so and what aspects of your operation you highlight that matter. Throw your analytical balls in the ring and make it plain that your methods are transparent and you judge yourself not by the high numbers you put out but the accuracy of your science. Do vendor days like any other provider of Cannabis services. Avoid the easy money and build your reputation on solid ground.

To the growers:
Get proud! Grow what you smoke and don’t let a lab tell you otherwise. Stand behind your weed 110%. Spend just as many man hours out in dispensaries talking directly to consumers about what you grow and why you grow it as you do in the garden. Yes, I know you like to sleep occasionally: now is not the time. Running a game means just that: running. You CAN build your niche, through blood and sweat and a river of tears. Don’t build it on bullshit.

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Work with other growers. Work with dispensaries. Let’s talk about this en masse and stick together. If a group of growers organized and co-hosted a vendor day not built around THC numbers or how flashy their stickers are but to have a barbecue and a series of speeches talking to and educating the public about good farming practices and a sustainable culture: This is how we build the community we absolutely need to survive. Let’s put our energy in the right places instead of shafting each other with false science. Let’s rise above rather than rot below. Prohibition was a struggle none of us will forget anytime soon, nor should we. We beat that fucking rap, now let’s beat this one.

There it is, y’all: Let’s Fight, Let’s Win, Let’s Smoke Better Weed. Demand it at every opportunity. We were born to overgrow, now’s our moment. Not to worry, see you around the circle, Onward…
***


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“Dick Bailey Fitts is some newbie clown who started taking dabs recently and now he thinks he’s hot shit. He for sure hasn’t been growing as long as you and probably spends his free time raving about his favorite hotdog water carts to all his old frat bros from that expensive state college you hate. I’ll bet he’s middlemanning some fucking cockjob hemp biomass deal right now as we speak. When it’s done him and the other 34 Chads involved will probably don their male rompers and head down to the nearest upscale tiki bar for low carb mojitos and shitty fucking cigars they don’t even know how to smoke properly. Boy he pisses me off. Fuck him.”
-Dick B. Fitts
 

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