If you’ve shopped for cannabis products recently, you may be unsurprised to learn that the industry has a bit of a transparency problem when it comes to packaging and labeling. While the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) has strict regulations for both prescription and over-the-counter (OTC) medications, it hasn’t been able to implement the same standards for cannabis-derived products, since the plant is still illegal under federal law. As a result, states have been left to decide for themselves how these products are packaged, labeled, and marketed.
Cannabis is now legal in 33 states for medical use and 10 states for recreational use, and each one has its own packaging laws. Although these can vary significantly from state to state, they tend to include a number of key criteria, such as the recommended dose and the total content of key ingredients. Some states regulate everything down to the minimum size of fonts that must be used on the back label, while others stick to broad overviews that allow much more leeway.
This wide variance in regulation has left few people satisfied. On one hand, it’s left CBD products in a poorly-monitored legal grey zone that puts consumers at risk — according to one study from Penn Medicine, up to 70 percent of products containing CBD are mislabeled. As cannabis researcher Dr. Sean Callan told CBS Austin, “You have an industry that has a rampant quality control issue,” with non-dispensary products showing high concentrations of pesticides, heavy metals, and toxic mold. At the same time, products that are sold in dispensaries are often more expensive and limited in terms of selection, hamstringing the legal cannabis industry’s ability to entice people away from the black market. As Dale Gieringer, the director of the pro-legalization group NORML in California, told the LA Times, “The cannabis industry is being choked by California’s penchant for over-regulation.”
For consumers, the best course of action is to learn the laws of their specific state, and (whenever possible) to purchase products from a licensed dispensary or directly from a manufacturer with a well-documented history of compliance. Here are some of the most important things to look for.
Much like the laws that govern the packaging of pharmaceutical and OTC products, those intended for cannabis and CBD products are primarily required for safety — especially children’s safety. While the letter of the law varies from state to state, in general they tend to restrict the maximum amount of product sold in each package or container (by weight or dose), and mandate that cannabis packaging must be sealed and secure. Most states also require that the packaging be locked in some way to make them child-proof or child-resistant, which can include push-and-turn bottle caps or Mylar bags with side locks. In most cases, medical marijuana and recreational marijuana are both subject to the same standards.
For example, here are a selection of the requirements for cannabis packaging in California:
Most states also have strict policies regarding the information that must be included on product labels (at least for products sold in dispensaries). Again, these are primarily intended to protect consumer safety by providing a clear, instantly understandable snapshot of what the product contains — and preventing underage use.
Here’s an example of what labeling laws look like in California:
Some states like Indiana are taking the requirement for transparency a step further by requiring a scannable QR code on the packaging of cannabis products (including those containing CBD) that can direct consumers — or law enforcement — to websites that contain extensive information about the product. This can include a product’s expiration date, its batch number, its full list of ingredients (including its THC concentration), and the name of the independent laboratory that tested it.
Companies that don’t comply with these requirements can face severe penalties. In Indiana for example, non-compliant businesses can face fines up to $10,000 or even the loss of their retail licenses). However, some products do manage to slip through the cracks — which is why reading the label carefully (and knowing exactly what should be on it) is so important for consumers.