Labels on cannabis products are mostly misleading, study warns

BOULDER, Colo. — When it comes to getting high, it seems that the type of marijuana users consume does not matter. A chemical analysis of marijuana products suggests the labeling is not consistent with the actual drug you’re looking to buy. A team from the University of Colorado Boulder says cannabis strains categorized as indica, sativa, or hybrid may be misleading customers.

“Our findings suggest that the prevailing labeling system is not an effective or safe way to provide information about these products,” says Brian Keegan, an assistant professor of Information Science at CU Boulder and co-author of the study, in a university release. “This is a real challenge for an industry that is trying to professionalize itself.”

While marijuana is not federally legal across the United States, states such as California and Colorado have legalized recreational marijuana for adults. Cannabis dispensaries have become commonplace and people who regularly buy from these providers might come across familiar brands such as “Girl Scout Cookies,” “Gorilla Glue,” and “Blue Dream.” The label may give the impression that buying a particular brand will give you the same result every time.

“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,” explains Nick Jikomes, director of science and innovation for the e-commerce cannabis marketplace Leafly.com and study co-author.

While people who legally sell marijuana must disclose how much THC — the psychoactive compound that gives people a “high” — is in the product, they do not need to disclose other compounds in the product. For example, a compound called terpene can affect the way the product smells and can amplify a person’s high.

Cannabis labeling can be a messy process

In the study, the researchers combed over a large database on the chemical breakdown of about 90,000 cannabis samples offered in six states. As expected, most cannabis products had THC. However, a closer examination showed some differences between products. One group of products had high amounts of the terpenes caryophyllene and limonene. Meanwhile, another had high amounts of myrcene and pinene. The last category showed high levels of terpinolene and myrcene.

The team concluded that these chemical labels do not “neatly” match with products categorized as indica, sativa, or a hybrid strain. For example, a product that claims to be an indica strain could have a similar chemical composition as another product labeled sativa or hybrid.

Given these little differences between the three strains, the authors looked at how similar products under the same brand name actually were. Researchers found similarities between products that depended on the brand. One brand called “White Tahoe Cookies” was consistent across its product line. However, another brand called “Durbin Poison” had batches with different chemical makeups.

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

The team emphasizes how important it is for people to know what they’re putting in their bodies as marijuana continues to be legalized.

“It’s like if your cereal box only showed calories and fat and nothing else,” Keegan concludes. “We as consumers need to be pushing for more information. If we do that, the industry will respond.”

The study is published in the journal PLOS One.

About the Author

Jocelyn Solis-Moreira

Jocelyn is a New York-based science journalist whose work has appeared in Discover Magazine, Health, and Live Science, among other publications. She holds a Master’s of Science in Psychology with a concentration in behavioral neuroscience and a Bachelor’s of Science in integrative neuroscience from Binghamton University. Jocelyn has reported on several medical and science topics ranging from coronavirus news to the latest findings in women’s health.

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