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By Morgan Worley
If you’ve purchased legal cannabis you’ve probably taken the time to look at the label on your cannabis, but do you really know what that label is trying to tell you? We’re here to demystify the testing label on your cannabis, because it’s actually crucial for your health and your ability to pick out quality cannabis products.
It’s essential that we, as consumers and as influencers of the cannabis culture, understand how our cannabis is tested, what information ends up on the product label (and what doesn’t), and how it could affect our health if we don’t get testing right as an industry.
Each legal cannabis state has their own test label requirements, causing test labels to differ slightly from state to state. However, most states require growers to test for the basics:
Many growers will have their cannabis tested for terpenes and other cannabinoids as well. But what does that information actually tell you about the cannabis you’re about to buy?
Testing for mold, heavy metals and pesticides is a ‘no brainer’ - that’s for consumer safety and we’ll touch on this a little later. The benefits of knowing which cannabinoids and terpenes are in your cannabis are due to the entourage effect, the symbiotic and synergistic interactions between cannabinoids and terpenes.
In other words, cannabinoids like THC interact with other cannabinoids and terpenes to enhance or reduce the effects of your cannabis.
An example of how these compounds work together include; THC is well known for its psychoactive properties (it’s what gets you high) and CBD is well known for its calming and anti-inflammatory properties, but what happens when you consume both at once? CBD actually reduces the psychoactive experience of THC, but can also enhance some of the therapeutic aspects of THC, like pain relief.
Below, we’ve listed the major cannabinoids included on cannabis test labels, but keep in mind that cannabis has literally hundreds of cannabinoids and terpenes that could play a role in the entourage effect.
THC: the psychoactive compound found in cannabis (it’s what gets you high).
THCA: is a THC compound with a carboxyl group attached to it, making it both more acidic and predominantly non-psychoactive (it doesn’t get you high). You can think of THCA as “Potential THC.” Exposing THCA to heat (220°F+) or extensively oxidizing it (drying it out) causes it to lose the carboxyl group, converting THCA into THC (decarboxylation).
CBD: well known for its anti-inflammatory and calming effects.
CBDA: like THCA, it has a carboxyl group attached that, when lost due to heat, results in CBD. CBDA has similar effects as CBD.
Keep in mind, though THC and CBD are collectively the most abundant cannabinoids found in cannabis today, there are many more cannabinoids that are not included on test labels. It would be beneficial for cannabis consumers to have access to the percentages of every relevant cannabinoid found in the cannabis product they are considering purchasing, as well as more transparency when it comes to pesticides, mold, heavy metals and harvesting dates.
We’ve listed below some of the most prevalent cannabinoids, terpenes and other relevant information that should be on a cannabis test label, but often isn’t:
The harvest date for cannabis is...“the date the mature marijuana plants in a harvest lot were removed from the soil or other growing media.”
While some states require the harvest date be included on cannabis labels, many states do not require this information. The harvest date speaks to the freshness and potency of the cannabis because of the volatility (evaporation rate) of terpenes and the oxidization (drying out) of cannabinoids.
Now, what happens to cannabis when left for a long period of time...
When cannabis bud is stored in an enclosed jar or bag, especially if kept in the sunlight, the buds experience cannabinoid degradation and terpene evaporation. Over time, for example, THC will interact with the air in the jar or bag and degrade to CBN, a sleepy and non-psychoactive cannabinoid. Terpenes, which drive the smell, taste and effects of cannabis, will evaporate and degrade over time as well. This leaves you with a stale, less potent smoking experience, highlighting the importance of having access to the date the buds were harvested.
Related article: What Is CBN? and How Is It Different From CBD?
Furthermore, having access to the list of molecular compounds and foreign ingredients, like pesticides, found in our cannabis products is just as important as the list of ingredients found on everything we buy at the grocery store. It provides transparency, health safety, and keeps us knowledgeable about what we consume, which is arguably more important with cannabis because smoking/inhaling provides a direct passage to our central nervous system.
While cannabis growers are mandated to include the main cannabinoids on all product packaging, they are not required to include the pesticide, mold and heavy metal test results on the product itself. Each of these test categories have an allowable content in parts per million (ppm) that varies depending on the state the product is grown and tested in. For chronic, habitual cannabis consumers, this means that over time you could be consuming enough pesticides, mold or heavy metals for it to affect your health.
Additionally, there are only a dozen or so prohibited pesticides for cannabis with a few hundred allowed pesticides ranging from terpenes and predatory insects to chemicals. Some of the most popular natural pesticides used are terpenes like limonene and predatory insects like ladybugs and praying mantises.
A few of the most popular chemical pesticides used on cannabis are:
With this in mind, what does it mean when a cannabis package states that it is “Pesticide Free” or “Pesticide Tested?” The honest answer: both are incredibly misleading. Growers that put “Pesticide Free” on their packaging may have used natural pesticides like terpenes or insects, but the analysis test results show zero chemical pesticides. A “Pesticide Free” label could also mean that they use approved chemical pesticides and completely rid the plants of those pesticides during the last few stages of the grow cycle, meaning their buds have tested as pesticide free.
Related article: The Top 3 Organic Cannabis Pesticides for Home and Commercial Use
The term “Pesticide Tested” simply means that the cannabis was tested for pesticides at some point. This is one of the most misleading terms for cannabis consumers because it doesn’t tell you how those test results turned out - just that the results were low enough that they could package and sell it. Though this revelation may seem disheartening, there are third-party certifications that you should keep an eye out for.
Each of the below certifications have their own requirements and expectations for cannabis growers, but each of them gives the consumer some peace of mind. Regardless of the certification, certified cannabis products have been grown more responsibly and are a healthier cannabis product compared to those without any cannabis certification.
However, there is one additional option that allows consumers to be more knowledgeable about their cannabis products: requesting the analysis results at the time of purchase.
When a grower brings in a new shipment of their products to a dispensary, they must also provide their test information from a third-party company. This information is kept on-hand at the dispensary and can be requested by customers at any time. It may take the dispensary staff some time to find and scan the paperwork, so be patient if you request quality analysis results.
Now that we know what cannabis is tested for and why, how do we actually read the label on our cannabis? What do those percentages actually tell us, the consumer? To fully understand what “THCA = 23.4%” even means, we need to understand how that percentage was derived at the testing laboratory.
Though each testing laboratory tests cannabis in their own proprietary way, there are two main methods that laboratories use to test cannabis: gas chromatography and liquid chromatography.
First: What is Gas Chromatography Method?
Gas chromatography, to put it simply, involves grinding the cannabis buds, heating it to vaporize the cannabinoids and terpenes, and sending it through a machine that separates each molecular compound found in cannabis, like THC and CBD. Consequently, heating the ground buds during gas chromatography causes the test results to be measured in terms of active potential.
As mentioned earlier, THCA is the acidic form of THC and requires heat to decarboxylate (remove the carboxyl group). When using gas chromatography, the ground cannabis is heated to remove the carboxyl group, which means that the test label will only show the activated cannabinoid total.
Gas chromatography makes the test label on cannabis packaging very simple but may not be entirely accurate for flower products depending on the volatility (evaporation rate) of the terpenes and cannabinoids when it is burned by the consumer.
For example, the buds that are sent to the testing lab are freshly cured, but the buds that make it to the consumer have had to sit and wait for approval and packaging, allowing them to dry out further. Factors like these may seem negligible, but will change the accuracy of a gas chromatography test label.
To interpret a cannabis test label provided using the gas chromatography method, please see the product image of a Northwest Concentrates’ Presidential OG dab. This label shows:
Gas chromatography is slowly becoming less popular than liquid chromatography because liquid chromatography is more precise. However, liquid chromatography provides a test label that is more difficult to interpret.
Second: Liquid Chromatography Method
Liquid chromatography, to put it simply, involves grinding the cannabis buds, adding a solvent (liquid that helps break down the plant material), and sending the ground up buds through a machine that separates each molecular compound, like THC and CBD. Liquid chromatography uses chemicals instead of heat to extract the terpenes and cannabinoids from the cannabis buds, providing test results in both potential and active percentages.
While this type of test label is more precise, it is also more difficult to interpret. Take, for example, the test label of Elon Musky Sugar Crystals from Lifted Cannabis:
THC + THCA(0.877) = THCTOTAL
When it comes to reading the test labels for cannabis buds, it’s important to note that all of these cannabinoids are stored in the trichomes (the white hairs on the surface of the buds). If the test label shows a THC percentage higher than 25%, the bud material should have at least 25% percent trichomes! If the buds look dull and the test label promises a high THC percentage, we welcome you to question the accuracy of the label (more on this topic included in the conclusion of this article).
As mentioned earlier, the only way to know exactly what those other cannabinoids are is to get the test results from the dispensary. As the cannabis industry continues to get closer to federal legalization and the testing industry nears a $2 billion industry, the regulations and expectations for cannabis testing needs better standardization and more informative test labels. For example, testing data should be on the grower’s or the dispensary’s websites for customers to easily find.
Cannabis test labels can provide a wealth of information about the cannabis we intend to purchase and consume. Testing laboratories have a lot of responsibility in the industry; they protect consumers from inhaling mold, pesticides, and heavy metals, they tell us how many cannabinoids we can find in our cannabis, and they give us insight into the types of effects our cannabis will give us.
As cannabis consumers and influencers of the cannabis culture, we also have a responsibility to understand the information provided by test labels and understand their shortcomings to improve the industry in the future. Testing laboratories have been shut down for faking THC content results, for falsifying pesticide results, and black market cannabis consumers have been hospitalized for consuming untested cannabis with mold and even lead.
Let us know what products you think have the best packaging and most informative test labels in the comments below!
Morgan Worley is a business development professional with a passion for the cannabis industry. After seeing the medicinal benefits cannabinoids can have, she decided to transition from opening new restaurants and coffee shops to working in the cannabis industry. Since 2018, Morgan has gained experience in the industry as a medical consultant, dispensary manager, cannabis trade show producer and traceability software saleswoman. Outside of the workplace, Morgan strives to live a healthy lifestyle modeled after Blue Zones.