Cannabis currently is not legal anywhere in the United States. It is, however, taxed and regulated in a growing number of states and that is a noteworthy distinction because the only thing as crippling as the overtaxation of these budding markets is the overregulation of them.
In Cali, in the Prop 215 medical cannabis days from roughly 2000-2015, the dispensary experience was, for better or worse, far different than it is today under Prop 64. Gone are the days of cruising into some hole-in-the-wall pot shop and being greeted by jars of weed bigger than your head crammed full of colas and a budtender ready to pack up your purchase right in front of you.
Today, rec weed regulations dictate that products like cannabis flower must be pre-packaged, usually before it is even sold wholesale to the dispensary. All cannabis products have to be in ridiculous “child-proof” packaging rendering everything from vape carts, to concentrates, to edibles, to lotions out of touch, and smell, of the consumer at the point of purchase.
This, as much as anything, is anchoring Cali’s regulated weed market to mediocrity. It’s called ‘bag appeal’, and pre-packed mylar ain’t appealing.
While some brands can move product based on the strength of their name (see Cookies, Jungle Boys, etc.), these brutal packaging regulations force most cannabis companies to compete for consumers’ attention with their packaging itself.
This just makes packaging – what used to be a Ziploc bag and what remains the least important part of the transaction – into more marketing bullshit that consumers have to adeptly wade through to get to the information they need to make an informed purchase and have a good cannabis experience… which is what it’s really all about.
It is worth noting that as cannabis reform moves from state to state, it is being implemented with slight tweaks and changes from the markets that came before them. In Oregon, for example, TJ’s on Willamette in downtown Eugene still has those big ol’ jars of weed on display, and you will watch your budtender select each nug for you and – get this, Cali – drop them into a plastic pop-top container. They print a label right there on the spot and slap it on your glorified pill bottle and off you go. No logos, just weed.
When I go to a dispensary in Oregon, usually to buy flower, I have learned to shop by farm. That information is readily available on most dispensary menus and on the printed label after I make my purchase. I know that certain farms can be counted on to put out heat, almost regardless of strain.
There are other telling bits of info on that label that have helped me hone in on trustworthy sources for good weed, but it took a lot of trial and error (and mids) since that info only came to me after I made my purchase.
So, while the amount of info available to you as a cannabis consumer may vary depending on the market you are in, here is a list of things to look for on a cannabis product label – or ask your budtender about specifically – before you buy, if you can.
LOOK FOR THIS INFO ON YOUR CANNABIS PRODUCT LABEL
Not everything listed below will apply to every type of cannabis product.
A suppository, for example, shouldn’t need a terpene profile, but I’m not judging anyone!
(Note: Yes, yes… terpenes even matter in suppositories… it was a joke, don’t go so deep with it! One knuckle only…)
This list generally applies to cannabis flower. If you are buying cannabis flower from a dispensary and you do not have access to the information below, that’s where a good budtender earns their tips. If the shop you are in and the staff they employ will not provide that information or seems incurious about it all, consider finding a new source for your cannabis.
STRAIN/CULTIVAR NAME & GENETICS
As arbitrary as a strain name may seem, when a cultivar is labeled with the accurate name it denotes a specific genetic lineage, and often even reveals who the original breeder was.
As we know, you can buy 100 seeds of the same strain from the same breeder and pop them all, and get 100 different variations, or phenotypes, of that strain. A strain name might help differentiate those phenos (Grape Cookies vs. Orange Cookies, for example).
For this reason, knowing with confidence that you are getting the actual strain or cultivar listed on the menu or on the cannabis product label is just one piece of the puzzle. You should also find out the…
BRAND OR FARM NAME
Oh, you love the strain Ice Cream Cake? Well, every grower and their grandma grew it last year so you’ll have no problem finding some Ice Cream Cake this year. Ahhh, but finding the one you love could be difficult unless you can figure out which brand or farm it came from.
If it was that good, then that grower knows that and is likely preserving not only those genetics but that exact phenotype as described above.
Once you have found a farm or two whose products you feel you can trust, dig deeper. They ought to have some sort of online presence telling their story, exposing their roots.
Good weed is good.
Good weed from good people is great.
Again, shopping by THC totals alone is a fool’s game. Especially with the questionable state of lab testing in most emerging cannabis markets. BUT, it is important to remember that THC does matter.
Most cannabis labels should include a readout for ‘Total Cannabinoids’. This number will reflect the combined amounts of all cannabinoids present like CBD, THC, and others, and will give a better at-a-glance understanding of potency.
By asking, or demanding, to see lab tests for specific products you can usually view a more detailed breakdown of cannabinoid content if the label only gives the lump sum.
Last year, we told you that 2021 Will Be the Year of the Terpene. Nailed it.
The importance of the role that terpenes play in the overall cannabis experience is finally coming into focus as we discover that it is the subtle variations in these aromas and flavors that give us the incredible diversity of cultivars and effects that cannabis is revered for.
Tangie terps give me a headache, personally.
Cali O terps get me blissfully high with no headache.
Identifying that, and being able to identify it on cannabis packaging, keeps my head right, literally.
Obviously, this is specific to flower, but it is so important.
The supply chain in California cannabis is way, way, way too long. The amount of time that elapses between a crop being harvested and those flowers being consumed is turning everything from Above Average -> Nuclear Fire weed into cardboard mids by the time it is purchased at the dispensary.
Here in Oregon, the supply chain is much more manageable but the absolute glut of weed that has flooded the market in recent years leads to dispensaries tossing turkey bags in a safe in the back for months before displaying it for sale. Again, that strain has changed in that time. Cannabinoids and terps have degraded and morphed to the point where you might as well give it another name.
TEST DATE & RESULTS
Comparing the Harvest Date to the Test Date can be informative as well. There should not be a huge gap between those two dates, but there should be a gap! If it was harvested on 9/9/2022 and tested on 9/16/2022 we have to assume that it was only given A WEEK TO DRY AND CURE.
Again, regulations vary from state to state, but here in California, EVERY cannabis product sold at the wholesale level must have an accompanying COA, or third-party lab test report. Some brands will include a QR code right on their packaging which, when scanned, leads right to their product testing results.
As a consumer, you have the right to see those COAs and you should take advantage of that if you are seeking specific brands or products to remain loyal to.
3RD PARTY CERTIFICATION, AWARDS WON ETC.
Again, this does not apply to all product types, or to all states or markets, and can vary wildly in relevance.
The Cali cannabis market does have some worthwhile and trustworthy organizations that will certify qualified farms or brands as being eco-conscious and producing ‘clean’ cannabis. Brands who adhere to these standards (and who pay a membership fee, of course) can then market their products using a logo or seal from these third-party watchdogs.
Yes, it is a bit of ‘pay to play’, but they still have to meet those high standards in order to do so, and that matters.
The same can be said for cannabis awards. Cali has no shortage of meaningless cannabis clout festivals and truckloads of plastic trophies to hand out at them, but some events like the Emerald Cup, for example, still matter. A win in the Emerald Cup means that your product rose above the best of the best and impressed the most experienced judges in the cannabis culture. A company that can display such an accomplishment in its branding and packaging is clearly proud of its products.
THE BOTTOM LINE ON READING A CANNABIS LABEL
Since cannabis is still not legal anywhere in the United States, there is no nationwide standardization for cannabis labeling and the information it should provide.
This is compounded by the fact that most states with taxed and regulated cannabis markets have little or no standardization requirements when it comes to the third-party lab testing of the products being sold in those markets.
Combined, these two issues inevitably lead to labeling and packaging that is often inaccurate at best, and dishonest in too many cases.
Just this month, a research team at the University of Miami School of Medicine tested 516 commercially available CBD products and found that only 42% of them fell within a +/-10% range of the CBD total listed on the label. Many of the products tested came back showing incredibly high levels of metal and plastic residue which, of course, was not listed on the label.
Earlier this year, Curaleaf was forced to pull thousands of products off of New York dispensary shelves after it was discovered that they were advertising the “dry weight” THC total of their flowers on the packaging, rather than the “wet weight” as required by local regulations. The difference between the two could be 10-20%, so clearly Curaleaf was trying to trick consumers into thinking that their nugs are 10-20% more potent than their competition.
Yes, we have told you before that if you are buying cannabis based purely on THC totals you’re doing it wrong, but this is just one example of how misleading a cannabis product label can be.
It is also a perfect example of why it is so important to ‘know your source’ when it comes to buying cannabis.
Does this mean getting weed straight from the grower? Well… ideally, yeah, but for the average consumer, discovering the ‘source’ starts at a dispensary.
The staff at that shop should be open, honest, and eager to answer all of your questions about the products that they sell. By asking the right questions, you will be led further down that path of discovery to learn about things like labeling, packaging, and lab testing and how to read those reports, as well as learn more about the craftspeople who bring your favorite products to market.
This is why on the rare occasion that I visit a dispensary in Eugene, Oregon, I can rest assured that TJs on Willamette will have something tasty from one of the farms I have come to trust.
A cannabis product label led me there.
PS. There is not a whole lot of extra space on the average cannabis product label or package. So, if a brand elects to fill that space using words like “CALM” or “CREATIVE”, rather than giving you actual useful and relevant info, consider that a potential red flag. What makes you CALM or CREATIVE might make me CRANKY.