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Caveat Emptor: Are Marijuana Labels Accurate?

Posted by on Wednesday, November 15, 2017 in News, Updates.

As discussed in the book, many legalization states have adopted detailed labeling requirements for marijuana products (see pages 456-462). Among other things, suppliers must clearly indicate the quantity of THC and CBD contained in packages of marijuana.

Labeling requirements like these are designed to inform consumers and thereby help them make better consumption choices. To serve that purpose, of course, labels must be accurate.

However, two studies published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) – one in 2015  and the other in 2017 – cast doubt on the accuracy of labels on certain marijuana products. In both studies, researchers tested the CBD and THC content of medical marijuana products on the market and then compared their test results with the labels suppliers had affixed to those products. In the 2015 study, the researchers focused on marijuana edibles sold by medical marijuana dispensaries in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Seattle; in the 2017 study, the researchers focused on CBD products purchased over the internet. Consistent with standards applicable to the herbal products in the pharmaceutical industry, researches considered labels to be accurate so long as the quantity of CBD or THC listed on the label was within +/- 10% of the quantity found via testing.

Both studies found widespread and significant inaccuracies in the labeling of CBD and THC content. From the 2015 study:

“Of 75 products purchased . . . , 17% were accurately labeled, 23% were underlabeled, and 60% were overlabeled with respect to THC content . . . . The greatest likelihood of obtaining underlabeled products was in Los Angeles and overlabeled products in Seattle. . . . [O]nly 13 [products] had CBD content labeled. Four products were underlabeled and 9 were overlabeled for CBD.

And from the 2017 study:

“Eighty-four products were purchased and analyzed . . . . With respect to CBD, 42.85% . . . of products were underlabeled . . . , 26.19% . . . were overlabeled . . . , and 30.95% . . . were accurately labeled . . . Concentration of unlabeled cannabinoids was generally low . . . ; however, THC was detected . . . in 18 of the 84 samples tested (21.43%). . .”

It is worth noting that the FDA has also found discrepancies in labeling of CBD products. See here  (reporting test results for CBD products purchased over the web).

As the authors of the JAMA published studies suggest, label inaccuracies raise at least two distinct concerns. One is that inaccuracies could prevent patients from reaping the potential therapeutic benefits of marijuana. For example, if a product has less CBD or THC than advertised (i.e., it’s overlabeled), a patient who uses it won’t necessarily get the quantity of the drug she needs to treat her illness. The second concern is that inaccuracies could expose patients to unwanted risks associated with THC consumption. For example, if a product has more THC than advertised (i.e., it’s underlabeled), a patient who uses it might not realize she is too impaired to drive after consuming it. (There is less risk associated with underlabeling CBD content, because there are few – if any – harmful side effects associated with that cannabinoid.)

The studies have little to say about how to improve labeling. While the 2017 study cites a “need for manufacturing and testing standards, and oversight of medical cannabis products”, states already have standards and oversight (as noted above). To be sure, those existing regulations might be flawed, but the studies don’t really enable us to make that judgment. The products tested in the 2017 study, for example, were procured over the web, and not necessarily from licensed vendors who are subject to any of the aforementioned labeling requirements. The 2015 study suggests that California’s and Washington’s labeling regulations were not terribly effective circa 2015, but a lot has changed in the intervening 2 ½ years (especially in California). Apart from imposing – and rigorously enforcing – labeling requirements, the book discusses a few additional options governments could pursue to improve labeling, such as holding suppliers liable in tort for damages resulting from mislabeled products (see pages 499-501).

One last note – The Council on Responsible Cannabis Regulation, an advocacy organization, and the National Cannabis Industry Association, have issued a white paper detailing their recommendations for state packaging and labeling requirements. Although the white paper does not specifically address the accuracy concerns raised by the JAMA studies, it provides the most thorough discussion yet concerning how states should regulate the packaging and labeling of marijuana products. It’s worth a read.

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