Article written by
Dipak HemrajHead of Research and Education
Content reviewed by
Dr. Lewis JasseyMedical Director - Pediatric Medicine
Table of contents
In the nearly 20 years since recreational cannabis has been introduced in the U.S., the legal cannabis industry has become an absolute juggernaut. So big, in fact, that experts project legal cannabis in the U.S. alone to be a $41 billion industry by 2025. With that type of money involved, it’s no wonder that nearly ⅓ of Americans have tried cannabis, and more than 85 percent agree that cannabis has valid medical uses.
That’s why millions of Americans have already gotten medical cannabis cards of their own, giving them access to the natural, green medicine that is cannabis. Interestingly enough, But for someone who has never used cannabis before, heading to the dispensary can be a confusing and disorienting experience, especially when it comes to actually reading the product labels. After all, how are you supposed to understand how to use your medication if you have no idea what any of that stuff on the wrapper, box, or bottle means?
That’s where this article comes in! We’re going to break down how to read your product labels, tell you exactly what all of those three-letter abbreviations mean and why they matter, and how to tell if your product is lab tested and why that’s so important when it comes to medical cannabis.
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Label Basics: What to Look for On Your Cannabis Product Packaging
When it comes to reading the packaging, there are a few key things to keep in mind. Let’s run through them, shall we?
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Let’s start with the very basics first. If you’re a complete cannabis novice, a casual user transitioning into medical use, or just someone who has just puffed and passed without thinking too much about what that joint might be packed with, it might surprise you that there’s a massive difference between cannabis strains when it comes to flower.
Strains can be broken down most easily into three sub-categories: indica, sativa, and hybrids. While each has its own flavors and usual characteristics, it’s most easily broken down like this. Under the old way of classifying cannabis, indicas are usually best for relaxing, sedative, body-high experience, sativa’s are best for an energetic, bubbly, uplifting high, and hybrids are for when you’re looking for a certain mix of the two.
If you’re trying to, for example, deal with a bit of insomnia you’d be best using a indica strain instead of a sativa. If you’re looking to take the edge off of a painful condition but not be couch-locked on a weekend afternoon, you’d be smart to pick up a sativa instead. However, these categories are broad, and are not necessarily an indicator of effect.
Being able to identify and understand whether the cannabis product you’re picking up from the dispensary is one that will help is vital, especially in an economic climate where disposable income is tough to find. The first thing you should do when you look at a product from your dispensary menu is to take a close look at what strain you’re dealing with, and then looking at the test results for cannabinoids and terpenes.
And while it’s important to note that the three easiest ways to categorize strains is by indica, sativa, and hybrid, those categories don’t always tell the whole story. Depending on an individual plant’s chemical makeup, the terms “indica” or “sativa” are not always true descriptors of effects. When looking at the cannabinoids and terpenes that a plant actually contains and at what concentration (something we’ll touch on later in this article), it is possible for an indica to look like a sativa on a chemical level. This is especially true in an era of hybridization.
We advise that you do your research and, of course, talk with your budtender are your local dispensary to learn a bit more about your medicine before you buy. Don’t be swayed by the simplistic indica, sativa and hybrid distinctions. Knowledge is power in nearly all things. There’s no exception when it comes to cannabis.
THC and CBD Content
Once you figure out what strain you want, the next step is to check the CBD, THC and cannabinoid content of that product. Whether it’s an edible, some dried flower, a tincture, or a transdermal cream, one thing you should always do is figure out how much THC and CBD you’re dealing with so you can properly dose yourself.
While there are are up to 150 naturally occurring cannabinoids present in your medication, the two that get the most attention are THC and CBD. THC and CBD are the two most prominent cannabinoids in the cannabis plant. A product that has high amounts of THC compared to CBD, for example, will likely be highly psychoactive. A strain with a higher CBD to THC ratio, however, would not. That difference is very important for patients to be able to live their lives safely and plan accordingly, especially if driving or work is involved. The key to getting the most out of your medicine is understanding the chemical concentration of your medication as best as you can. THC is useful for treating insomnia, nausea and appetite loss, whereas CBD is useful for treating anxiety and mood disorders. Both THC and CBD have anti-inflammatory and painkilling effects.
That’s why it’s so important to understand the THC to CBD ratio of any product you’re using. For example, a product that has even amounts of THC to CBD, let’s say 100 mg of each, would be considered a 1:1. A product that contained 200 mg of CBD and only 100 mg of THC, however, would be considered a 2:1 and would have different effects than a 1:1 would.
Certain strains and types of products will have different levels of each compound, and it’s important to understand the effects of each in treating the ailments you’re suffering from before you buy.
What Do All the Letters Mean?
The best way to better understand the full chemical profile of your cannabis is to understand the slew of abbreviations often found on your product labels like CBG, CBN, THVC, CBDV, THCA and CBDA. Thankfully, we here at Leafwell learned all of that stuff and will break down the main cannabinoids for you in a quick, easy guide below (our cannabinoid-terpene table is useful, too):
Cannabigerol (CBG) is a lesser-known cannabinoid that is present in very low levels of most cannabis strains. Just like with every other cannabinoid, it works throughout our bodies via our endocannabinoid system. CBG has been found to be particularly helpful in reducing symptoms of glaucoma, inflammatory bowel disease, Huntington’s disease, and bladder contractions. CBG, like CBD, is non-intoxicating. Similarly to CBD, CBG also reduces THC’s psychoactivity to some extent.
Cannabinol (CBN) is a cannabinoid created as THC is exposed to oxygen and ages. It’s found in its highest amounts in older cannabis. While the studies of CBN in humans have been limited, it’s shown potential as a powerful antibacterial capable of fighting ultra-resistant bacteria like MSRA, a neuroprotectant, an appetite stimulant, and an anti-inflammatory.
Cannabichromene (CBC) is an often-overlooked but extremely important cannabinoid when it comes to research. Dubbed one of the “big six” cannabinoids (but still technically a minor cannabinoid as it’s found in low concentrations in cannabis) after its discovery more than 50 years ago, research has shown CBC is extremely promising. CBC is non-intoxicating and works well with other cannabinoids throughout the body. While it does have individual effects, it really shines when it comes to the entourage effect. So far, researchers have found CBC plays a role in reducing and managing pain and inflammation, protecting brain cells, and reducing symptoms of depression.
Tetrahydrocannabivarin (THCV) is found in a wide array of cannabis strains and, while it has a similar molecular structure to THC, has varied and interesting effects. Researcher have found that THCV is psychoactive, just like THC, and has sown potential as an appetite suppressant, diabetes aid, can help those with PTSD manage panic attacks, helps those with Alzheimer’s manage their tremors, motor control, and brain lesions, and even work as an appetite suppressant.
Cannabidivarin (CBDV) is chemically similar to CBD and is most often found in Indica strains with lower levels of THC. CBDV is probably best known for its anti-seizure effects. It’s so effective, in fact, that GW Pharmaceuticals, the company that developed the first-ever FDA-approved CBD drug Epidiolex, is currently using CBDV to develop an anti-seizure medication.
Tetrahydrocannabinolic acid (THCA) is a compound that, while sharing three letters with THC, has very different effects. THCA is a non-intoxicating cannabinoid found in raw, undried cannabis. As cannabis flower gets processed and dried out, however, THCA converts into THC. THCA is the acidic form of THC. While there’s not enough clinical research done with THCA to say for sure, THCA has shown potential in early studies that it has anti-inflammatory properties for treatment of arthritis and lupus, neuroprotective properties for treatment of neurodegenerative diseases, and antiemetic properties for treatment of nausea and appetite loss.
Cannabidiolic acid (CBDA) is a compound abundant in CBD-rich strains of cannabis and hemp. Just like with THCA, over time and with the presence of heat, CBDA turns in CBD. Unlike some of the other compounds in this list, researchers have been studying CBDA for about ten years now. That gives us a solid body of research that shows how CBDA works and what it does for our bodies. CBDA increases the bioavailability of CBD, meaning it takes out bodies way less time and effort to process and feel it’s benefits when used . On top of that, it’s also shown real potential at easing seizure disorders, reducing inflammation from a wide variety of illnesses, and helping those suffering from depression to reduce their symptoms.
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For cannabis users who are looking for a more sophisticated understanding of their cannabis, they should check their labels for terpene profiles. Terpenes are the organic matter of the cannabis plant that provides its unique flavor and scent, setting strains apart for more than just their cannabinoid profiles. Terpenes also play a part in determining the effect a particular plant has, and contributes to cannabis’ entourage effect.
There are more than 200 terpenes found in cannabis plants that add a rich layer of complex flavors and scents to the experience of using cannabis. Myrcene, for example, is the most common terpene found in commercial cannabis. Strains rich in myrcene usually have a peppery, hoppy smell and flavor, similar to how someone would describe a craft beer. Myrcene can also contribute to a product’s sleepy effects.
Limonene-rich cannabis strains usually have a fruity, citrusy taste and aroma, comparable to that of orange or lemon rinds and juniper. Limonene can have both relaxing and uplifting effects, depending on which cannabinoids and terpenes it is combined with. Pinene-heavy strains usually smell and taste piney and herby, a scent many would compare to the likes of basil and rosemary. Pinene also has relaxing effects, and can mitigate some of the negative effects THC can have on short-term memory.
Every cannabis strain of flower you buy, take a moment before you break up your buds to check your packaging and get a deeper understanding of where those flavors are coming from. Those scent and taste differences might not seem too important, but they could make all the difference in finding a favorite strain of your own. For those who like to inhale cannabis smoke or vapor, a “dry hit”, where you inhale the aromas of the cannabis in the joint or pipe without heating or lighting it, can help you understand more about the terpenes present in the plant.
Warning Labels and Expiration Dates
The final thing you should always check before using any type of cannabis product, as boring as it might sound, is for any warning labels or expiration dates.
This one mostly applies to edibles, transdermal creams, and other forms of non-smokable cannabis, but it’s incredibly important for making sure you don’t have a negative experience.
We’ve all heard those horror stories of a friend not reading the label on their edible, eating the whole thing at once, and finding themselves absolutely stoned out of their minds on an airplane, at a public event, or another inopportune time. Or, on the total other side of the spectrum, you might know someone who picked up an edible, portioned it properly but simply felt no effect. While there’s a lot of reasons that could end up happening, one is that the edible they got was just a bit too old. That happens because they didn’t take the time to read the warning labels and check expiration dates before taking them.
Understanding that, for example, you need to take two 5 mg THC pills orally to relieve your chronic muscle pain is an important thing that some might overlook if they don’t check their dosage instructions on the label properly. That could be the difference between relief from your pain and just taking the edge off. That’s a massive difference. For example, your topical cream won’t do much good if you’re eating it.
When it comes to medical cannabis, just like any other medicine, it’s vitally important to use it as directed to get the best effects.
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