Karhlyle Fletcher   |   November 18, 2022

Overdue Improvements to Cannabis Labeling

An informed consumer is a more effective cannabis buyer.
Detroiter Karhlyle Fletcher is the host of High Lit, a cannabis research and classic literature podcast featuring leading voices and independent music. In addition to years in written and video cannabis journalism, he is also a traditional author.

For the cannabis industry to empower effective choices, a consensus must be established regarding what substances in cannabis products should be listed on their packaging. 

Chemicals Define Cultivars and Cannabis Generally

While it may seem overly particular to consider that everything humans ingest is a mixture of chemicals, it's true. Labels detailing the chemical composition of products are standard throughout most industries. The cannabis industry has adopted something approaching this systematic approach, yet there are many issues with it when examined by a chemist. Not only do some recreational markets not offer adequate labeling, but some labels can also prove false or misleading.

In May, the PLOS One Journal published an analysis confirming what has been common knowledge in the industry for a while: Sativa and Indica are chemically irrelevant categories when classifying consumer cannabis. Yet, perhaps a more exciting finding is there are distinct clusters of cultivars when classified by terpene concentration. Three clusters of cultivars contain elevated amounts of caryophyllene and limonene, myrcene and pinene, or terpinolene and myrcene. These clusters manifested in samples from all American markets. 

In the words of the study, "it is likely that a sample with the label “Indica” will have an indistinguishable terpene composition as samples labeled “Sativa” or “Hybrid.” By comparison, when samples are labeled by their dominant terpene, there is a better visual separation of data points by their label and a higher mean silhouette score. These results indicate that even a simple labeling system, in which THC-dominant samples are labeled by their dominant terpene, is better at discriminating samples than the industry-standard labeling system."

The researchers also categorized cultivars into THC-dominant, CBD-dominant, and balanced cultivars. There were by far more THC-dominant cultivars, as THC is the cannabinoid that cultivators are historically most concerned about maximizing. Due to this plurality, THC-dominant cultivars also have the most terpene diversity. In contrast, the CBD-dominant and hybrid cultivars have abundant myrcene across most samples. Interestingly, even the CBD-dominant cultivars expressed over 0.3% THC, meaning they could not be classified as hemp. No scientific reason exists that these varieties cannot be bred to express more terpene and cannabinoid variation.

The study also describes how we need in vivo studies to confirm that cannabis compounds interact with one another to prove they have a synergistic effect. To effectively do so, grouping cannabis cultivars by the chemicals expressed by them rather than marketing terms is an excellent step to prepare for such research.

Again, from the research, "if it is true that different chemotypes of THC-dominant Cannabis reliably produce distinct psychoactive or medicinal effects, then a sensible starting point is to design studies comparing the effects of common, distinctive commercial chemotypes, such as those described by our cluster analysis. Likewise, if there is any modulatory effect of specific cannabinoids or terpenes on the effects of THC, then this should be tested using formulations designed to match the ratios people choose to consume under ‘ecological’ conditions."

For consumers to know what the product they're buying does, first, we need the research proving the effects and education on these compounds to be commonplace.

Is Cannabis a Status Symbol, Medicine, or Something Else?

Throughout the media cycle, celebrity brands and leaders in the industry, such as Cookies, often take the limelight. Most consumers know cultivars such as Sour Diesel and Jack Herer, but few know about the activist Jack Herer or the scientist Raphael Mechoulam. The terms used to popularize cannabis have mixed impacts on informing consumers.

Practices inherited from the street continue to define the industry. To this day, "sativa" and "indica" remain among the most common ways to organize cannabis products. Cultivar names are also common but may not adequately correlate to consistent chemical profiles. So, while a store might offer flower with no helpful information, an educated consumer knows Blue Dream is likely rich in myrcene and pinene – as long as the plant has been grown properly .

The industry isn’t in complete anarchy, and savvy consumers can make wise choices with the available information, but the most helpful strategy moving forward will be creating standards and providing consumer education.

How to Implement Improvements to Cannabis Labeling

Until the science is settled on how the chemicals present in cannabis affect the human body, it is impossible to have a concrete standard for labeling. However, listing cannabinoid and terpene content is an excellent place to begin.

Next, investing in consumer education through familiarization with cultivars and their corresponding chemical components can help spread knowledge throughout the industry. As this is a substance, our understanding is still developing; there will always be the chance other chemicals should also be listed on the label, but beginning to publish the concentrations of already known active components helps consumers track effects. Pairing this with apps that allow consumers to report their experiences to a database allows for some actionable and distributable information to get around the industry.

 All the tools exist; now, it’s just a matter of widespread adoption.


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