Cannabis Labeling and The Magic Formula

As Washington's marijuana producers and retailers are all too aware, lab test results (specifically THC %) drive product sales, but there is confusion about whether or not some producers are overstating their potency. Before discussing a fundamental problem in the marijuana industry, particularly Washington—a lack of understanding, on all levels, about what "total THC" actually means—let's talk about the reason that lab results have become a selling point in the I502 market.



Because customers can't really smell the products before they purchase, and because of the high cannabis tax rate that accounts to 43% of the retail price, the potency profile and product appearance are the only metrics (besides brand and growing conditions) that customers have to go off of before making a purchase. Sure, most retailers have [oversized] sniff jars with a few grams of dry nugs in them, but regular customers have come to expect their ineffectiveness (producers: next time, please try giving retailers smaller sniff jars with a Boost pack for maintaining smell and freshness).

At medical marijuana dispensaries, if a strain has top shelf pricing (around $15 a gram in Washington), the patient would evaluate their interest level in the buds by sight and smell, often allowing the scent of the cannabis to override a perceived need to assign a number to the potency level (more on "following your nose" in a future post). In the recreational market, the higher pricing (maybe $20 a gram for something exceptional) has to get matched to a THC percentage to justify the cost; if it's under 20% or so, a customer will hesitate to purchase at that price point because they want to get their money's worth.

This is why it's important to display lab results in an accurate and user-friendly way. Currently, most producers put effort into branding their packaging but leave their potency/barcode labels to look like an afterthought: pixelated black and white letters displaying THCA (a suspiciously high number), THC (a shockingly low number), and the cryptic "total" which, until recently, was supposed to mean "total active cannabinoids." In fairness, the reason that these labels are typically in a default style is due to the heavy amount of state-mandated labeling information that changes for every batch of product:

  • Lot number (producers can only test up to 5lbs at a time, which is called a "lot")
  • Potency information (THC, CBD, etc)
  • Net weight
  • Harvest date
  • Retailer's name
  • Retailer's UBI ("Unique Business Identifier")
  • Strain name (not technically required but still very important for traceability and marketing)

It's understandable why producers use black & white default labels printed directly from their plant tracking software, but not only are these labels an eyesore, many are confusing to read. With so many numbers, it's not always clear which is the number that the customer is really looking for.



When working with a tier 3 marijuana producer to design a single, fully compliant, user friendly label in summer of 2014, we contacted the Chief Science Officer at the cannabis testing laboratory about our lab results: "People will be confused that the THC is only around 1% and THCA is over 23%," we said, "is there anything we can do to make this easier for our customers to understand?" The scientist—who literally wrote the book on lab testing cannabis—provided the conversion formula for total potential THC:

(THCA x 0.877) + THC = Total THC

To break it down in layman terms (as I'm no scientist myself), THCA is the unactivated, non-psychoactive form of THC... it needs to be decarboxylated (heated) and converted into THC before it can have a psychoactive effect. It's the reason why eating a bud won't get you high, but smoking a bowl or eating an edible will.

Considering the point of recreational marijuana is intoxication, THCA is frankly useless to customers, but some producers and retailers depend on consumer ignorance to help promote the high number associated with THCA. Multiplying THCA by 0.877 and adding the already activated THC takes decarboxylization into account, therefore providing the buyer with a more accurate metric of the strain's total potential potency (shown as "Total" on the label). This total, in my opinion, should be displayed more prominently on labels (larger, bolder), but should perhaps be called "THC" or "Total THC" to reduce confusion.

I'm assigning you math homework (don't worry, it'll be fun): get a bag/ jar of recreational weed, multiply the THCA by 0.877, add the [super low] number for THC, and you'll see that it matches the number in "total."



The key takeaway is that we need to fix this educational gap at all levels:

  • Laboratories need to better explain the significance of this formula to producers, and more importantly, provide them with potency labeling suggestions
  • Producers/ growers need to make their labels easier for customers to understand by featuring "total THC" more prominently
  • Retailers and cannabis media outlets need to educate consumers about decarboxylization and how it relates to lab results
  • Customers need to pass the knowledge along to friends or [politely] to misinformed budtenders

All this is NOT to say that total potential THC should be the most important criterion when shopping for cannabis products, but there are even more marketing hurdles standing in the way of Washington's marijuana industry reaching its full potential... more on this in a future blog.