Ten Miles Square


April 24, 2013 9:42 AM How to Label Pot

By Mark Kleiman

Imagine – just hypothetically – that a state decided to open a legal (at the state level) commercial market in cannabis, with some of the users intending to use the substance to treat some medical condition and others using it for other purposes.

Such a market would have an advantage over purely illicit markets that the state could require that the product be tested and labeled with its content of active agents. Those labels might (or might not) help consumers what experience to expect from roughly how much of the product, avoiding unintentional overdose. They might also “nudge” users toward less hazardous patterns of use.

We’re pretty sure that THC is the primary “stoning” agent and that CBD (cannabidiol) has some buffering properties against, e.g., panic attacks. It seems likely that lots of the terpenoids that help give the product its flavor and odor also have their own psychoactivity, but the detailed science mostly hasn’t been done. It may also be the case that user-to-user variation in reactions will be higher for cannabis than it is for alcohol.

With respect to edible products, the label might try to inform consumers about how the content of (e.g.) a brownie compares to the content of some more familiar dosage form, such as a joint.

Finally, the label might contain warnings of various kinds: e.g., not to drive under the influence.

Since there’s more relevant information than can be legibly placed on a package label, there could also be required package inserts (as for pharmaceuticals) and/or a state-maintained website with information about cannabis and about how to interpret the information on the label.

There must be some optimal labeling system, but I’m damned if I can figure out what it is.

So let’s try a little bit of crowdsourcing. Please restrict your comments to the real of the technical and pragmatic; attempts to refight the drug wars in this space will be zapped. Place yourself in the regulator’s shoes and ask what you could do with currently available information that would be better than doing nothing.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-based Community]

Mark Kleiman is a professor of public policy at the University of California Los Angeles.


  • Ron Mexico on April 24, 2013 5:31 PM:

    As a regulator the primary problem is that you don't know how people are going to use the product--there's no commonly-accepted "dose" which translates cleanly to actual practice. People pack bowls differently for different apparatus, nobody smokes joints anymore (srsly!) or eats brownies. In the states with more or less legalized weed (e.g. Colorado) you can get all sorts of stuff (e.g. hard candy).

    But a responsible regulator would come up with two rating systems: one for smoking, one for eating. Eating it takes longer to get high, but the high lasts longer. Many a rookie has eaten stuff and then smoked because it wasn't working fast enough. Then...silly things happen. I think THC-based systems would be enough to be getting on with. If the science shows differently later, you can update the system easily enough.

  • Ron Mexico on April 24, 2013 5:39 PM:

    Hope this isn't skirting too close to your ban on fighting the drug war, but the danger in trying to do this is that one would encourage Big-Business products (e.g. prerolled blunts or joints with a controlled THC content) and discourage or chase from the marketplace less-easily measured products. I can imagine any kind of strength regulation working out in precisely this way.

    I don't know why this system is in place for alcohol, but there may not be an argument for applying it to weed. You can't physically overdose on MJ, and you don't have to measure THC in products to produce a standard for what "Impaired" driving looks like. Maybe there's a truth-in-advertising argument, to prevent unscrupulous weed merchants (heh!) from advertising schwag as ONEHITTSH*T!1!L33TW33D!1!, but the damage to the consumer is pretty minor for this kind of thing.

  • publius bolonius on April 24, 2013 8:05 PM:

    I'll have a go. Aside from cheap cartel weed, every grower knows what they are growing and why. From commercial to boutique growers the strain is the thing. And individual strains show a remarkable consistency in potency and purpose. Allowing for variations in individual growing, drying and curing techniques, the potency of a strain varies little from its original genetics. So a simple statement of Strain, THC%, CBD%, grow method (soil or hydroponic), light source (sun or artificial), and true trimmed weight should just about do it.

  • ducktape on April 25, 2013 4:29 PM:

    Ron Mexico says you can't overdose on MJ, but that's not really true. While nobody dies or suffers long-term consequences from over-indulging, lots of people can tell you about a time they thought they would just cop a light buzz but got so stoned they couldn't function on some unexpectedly potent weed. If you eat too much (you didn't realize the plate of brownies was special, and you ate them all), you can be stoned for days (not enjoyably so). Some sort of grading would be very useful, if it were possible.