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What's in Your Pot? Huge US Study Determined The Safety of Current Labeling Practices

21 MAY 2022

Changes in legislation over the use and distribution of cannabis in certain US states have seen the drug turn from an illicit black market to a corner store industry worth billions in just a few short years.

 

This rapid rise hasn't been without its teething problems as entrepreneurs, banks, advertisers, and public officials struggle to find common ground on the kinds of red tape that are necessary for striking a balance between safety and profit.

According to a study led by researchers from the University of Colorado, one area of the market in desperate need of an overhaul is regulation over the ways we label our weed.

It's a small detail we might take for granted when it comes to our weekly shopping. Thanks to laws governing the sale and marketing of food, we know when we pick up a pack of Oreos we're not going to find it full of cheese-flavored crackers.

We can also read a nutrition guide on the packaging that tells us how much sugar the product contains, or whether it might harbor substances we're allergic to. Should anything not be to our expectations, there are courses of action we can legally take.

For pot? Not so much.

"A farmer can't just pick up an apple and decide to call it a Red Delicious. A beer manufacturer can't just arbitrarily label their product a Double IPA. There are standards. But that is not the case for the cannabis industry," says Nick Jikomes, co-author and director of science and innovation from the cannabis marketplace Leafly.com.

 

Jikomes worked with a team of researchers to analyze just under 90,000 marijuana samples from six US states, measuring levels of their cannabinoids and compounds known as terpenes.

Terpenes are largely responsible for the skunk-like smell of cannabis, and can themselves influence the way cannabis triggers various effects in a body.

Cannabinoids have typically been used to set different kinds of marijuana cultivars apart from one another. For example, for cannabis to be considered hemp, it can't have more than a 0.3 percent tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) concentration when dry.

As the chemical group that interacts with the endocannabinoid system, they're critical to the medicinal and psychoactive effects of the products. Contrasts in levels of individual compounds, namely THC and cannabidiol (CBD), are also alleged to be responsible for the distinct effects of the two renowned Cannabis types, sativa and indica.

Thanks perhaps to a proposed phenomenon called the entourage effect, it's believed combinations of these and other plant chemicals work together to give the multitude of desired – and undesired – effects of weed.

Ideally, consumers would have a sound idea of the 'ingredient list' in their particular strain, cultivar, or even brand of weed.

 

Yet this isn't necessarily the case. Samples fell into three distinct categories when it came to the types of terpenes they contained, for example. None of these corresponded neatly with sativa and indica labels, making it a challenge to easily identify what you'd get based on this classification alone.

Of course, a good dispensary would know their products, but this might not be a given if you need to pack up and move state, leaving consumers to rely on consistencies in strains.

Fortunately, while some specific strains of cannabis were 'consistently inconsistent' according to the researchers, most were surprisingly similar regardless of where they were sold.

"There was actually more consistency among strains than I had expected. That tells me that the cultivators, at least in some cases, may not be getting enough credit," says Jikomes.

Giving credit to cultivars for self-regulation is one thing. Ensuring accountability and consumer protection is another.

With a bill for ending a federal ban on cannabis making it through the US House of Representatives in April, a national approach to regulating and marketing marijuana might soon be a more pressing issue.

 

Something as simple as having the same kind of confidence in knowing what's in your weed as you do your beer, bread, or even aspirin could be a major first step.

"Our findings suggest that the prevailing labeling system is not an effective or safe way to provide information about these products," says co-author Brian Keegan, an assistant professor of Information Science at Colorado University Boulder.

"This is a real challenge for an industry that is trying to professionalize itself."

This research was published in PLOS One.