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How to Read & Understand Cannabis Product Labels

Total THC? Available cannabinoids? Percentages of active THC? THC vs CBD ratios can get all scrambled if you don't know what you're looking at, that's why it's so important to know how to read marijuana labels and understand what they're telling you. Let's consider some of the basics of cannabis product labels and discuss how to read them effectively.
April 20, 2023
Est. Reading: 5 minutes
Table of Contents

Cannabis is complex, cannabis is multifaceted and cannabis is diverse. Above all else, cannabis is an experience that can heighten your senses, enhance your perceptions of the universe, and improve how you feel in these mortal coils we call bodies. In order to get the most out of your next cannabis experience you have to learn how to shop for the right stuff.

Because marijuana is versatile and variable, buying just any strain of cannabis product might not satisfy your particular needs. This is where learning how to read cannabinoid profiles, how to read THC and CBD labels, and understanding marijuana labeling can make or break your cannabis experiences.

What does each kind of cannabis label mean? Is it difficult to learn how to read dispensary labels vs government cannabis packaging? Let’s uncover the reasons for cannabis labeling and determine what you need to know about how to read cannabis profile information on packaging.

The Basics of Marijuana Labeling

In general, government produced cannabis labels definitely leave a lot to be desired. Treated like tobacco products but sold by liquor distributors, legal cannabis products exist in this weird ‘rock and a hard place’ when it comes to their packaging and labeling. Legal cannabis has tons of restrictions on what they say, look like, contain and how they are consumed.

This has created a problem of lack of differentiation in the eyes of cannabis consumers - most marijuana labeling is identical, the logos and color schemes are limited, and the physical product itself loses a lot of marketing appeal. In some cases, product labels are so simplistic and lacking details that customers might not have any idea what the product is, how strong it is, or what kinds of tastes/smells they can expect.

When you break it all down to the basics, legally produced marijuana labeling is just boring. Thankfully, there are no such restrictions on cannabis products you buy online and at dispensaries. Where government regulated cannabis products are bland, similar and confusing in their packaging information, the weed you buy on the web is fun, funny, colorful and comes in every shape, size, flavor and potency imaginable.

Does this mean there are different ways how to read a dispensary label vs how to read THC labels from legal retailers? Yes and no. Most marijuana product labels focus on the same kinds of information, they’re just designed differently or express more/less information than the other. A typical marijuana labeling scheme will include:

Brand/Product Name (logo, company/manufacturer, grower, etc)

Product Characteristics (type, volume/weight, flavors, aromas, etc)

Cannabinoids Contents (THC, CBD, CBN, CBG, etc… Listed as % or mg/ml)

Nutritional Information (ingredients, daily value %, flavor additives, preservatives, etc)

Quality Standards (grading, guarantees, certifications, awards, etc)

Limitations/Warnings (age restrictions, health risks, suggested doses, etc)

This isn’t everything you can find on a cannabis product label, but most marijuana labeling and packaging is consistent on these kinds of information. The real important takeaways for cannabis labels has to do with learning how to read cannabinoid profiles. We’ll dive into this in the next sections of this article as we discuss THC & CBD values, dosing and how to read THC label information because this is what really matters when we’re wondering about cannabis products.

Before we move on, here’s the layout for most cannabis labels:

Product Category
Product details like genetics, strain names, whether the cannabis is an indica, sativa or hybrid, in addition to certain classifications like sublingual edible or slow-release concentrate can be listed on the label. The brand name, product title and its category typically appear front-and-center on the label. Additional characteristics or descriptors of the product’s intended uses might also be found on the front of the label.

Cannabinoids & Terpenes
We will be going through how to read THC labels and CBD labels in the next section, but for now we’ll mention that all significant cannabinoids and/or terpenes present in the cannabis are shown on the label. Cannabinoids like THC, CBD, CBN or CBG will have active and/or total concentration values (i.e. 50% THC, 50 mg THC/g, etc).

Lot/Batch #
Lot numbers or batch codes are used to scan the products for sale, for tracking of the batch and recall if there are any product defects. Consumers don’t really need to worry about these internal/systems numbers as much as businesses, but astute stoners will start to pick up on older batch #’s identifying older products.

Best Before/Expiry Date
Cannabis products typically last a lot longer than your average food or beverage goods, but they have to list expiry dates nonetheless. Whenever you’re shopping for cannabis in a dispensary or retailer, be sure to check the products’ expiry or best-before dates in case it’s close to the end of its usable life. Online providers are often very careful about not selling near-to-date products, but always double check when you receive them in the mail.

Most marijuana product labels avoid ‘suggested uses’ or ‘dosing instructions’ because everyone has very distinct needs and tolerances to cannabinoids. On top of this, suggesting certain doses can get a company in trouble - a person might get overwhelmingly high whereas another person might find the dose to have zero effectives. In either example, it’s best to just leave the dosing up to the individual and refrain from recommending uses for the product. What many cannabis product label DO include now is the opposite of dosing suggestions - they show warnings about starting with lower doses and taking them slowly until you know how the product affects you.

How to Read Cannabinoid Profiles

When you simplify a labels important details down to the core, it’s all about the cannabinoids. How to use a product, it’s size/volume, flavors and ingredients are all essential to know, but the only thing many of us are concerned with has to do with THC or CBD. Before we breakdown how the active compounds vs total cannabinoids works, let’s get something out of the way - cannabis labels typically list ONLY THC and CBD values. Why is this?

Even though there are hundreds of cannabinoids and terpenes in cannabis plant species, and we’ve only mapped out the obvious ones - there are some experts who suggest there could be hundreds more yet undiscovered!. So, the more we understand about full-spectrum cannabis products, the entourage effect, and how cannabinoids and terpenes work the more we’ll unlock the specifics of how all phytocompounds influence our brains & bodies.

For now, we focus on THC and CBD because they’re the most well understood. We understand THC is the major driver for psychoactivity in cannabis, and we know that CBD can counteract these mind altering effects. Our research and medical focus has been set squarely on THC and CBD, but other cannabinoids like CBN, CBG, THCV and more are becoming more prominent as we continue to explore cannabis’ mysteries.

With that out of the way, let’s discuss how to read cannabinoid profiles such as total THC, active CBD and others of the like.

How to Read THC Labels & CBD Labels

Learning how to read dispensary labels can be a lot easier than some government licensed cannabis because they list the easier-to-read values for potency: active cannabinoids. This means the amount of THC, CBD or other phytocompounds that are available to be consumed whenever heat is applied (i.e. when they’re decarboxylated). This amount identifies how much THC you can expect to receive when you consume the product initially.

EXAMPLE: THC 6.9 mg/g | CBD <1 mg/g

‘Active cannabinoids’ on the label are a lot more useful than their counterparts, total cannabinoids, because this value is what is expected to be in the entirety of the package. This can be inaccurate in some cases as degradation breaks THC or CBD down over time. On the flip side, some products are slightly more potent than when they were first analyzed due to heat/pressure in the final container causing the cannabis to decarb naturally.

EXAMPLE: Total THC 69 mg/g | CBD <10 mg/g

In other examples, some cannabis producers still prefer to label their cannabis with percentages of THC or CBD (i.e. 35% THC, 5% CBD). This is probably due to many customers being used to the percentage model for cannabinoids, so many manufacturers provide cannabinoids potency values in both % and mg/g or ml/l.

EXAMPLE: THC 6.9 % | CBD <1 %

Because many stoners prefer to use the percentage method than the milligrams per gram one that many medical-grade products utilize, here is an easy conversion method for turning the total mg/g or total ml/l into %:

THC 69 mg/g | CBD <10 mg/g can easily be converted into % by dividing either figure by 10.

Therefore… 69 mg / 10 = 6.9 % THC | 10 mg / 10 = <1 % CBD These calculations don’t always work so well for cannabis concentrates, extracts, edibles or topicals so the majority of consumers stick to this kind of marijuana math for cannabis flowers or pre-rolls only. That being said, cannabis concentrates, edibles and topicals have to be tested thoroughly for potency & quality moreso than buds, so you can expect their values to be a lot more accurate. Many cannabis concentrates also list all three variables for cannabinoid potency: mg/g or ml/l, total cannabinoids and % of THC or CBD.

Now that you know how to read cannabinoid profiles and why marijuan labeling is constructed the way it is, it’s time to get experimenting with different potencies of THC, CBD and terpenes to find your ideal range. The best and only effective way to manage your cannabis tolerances is to continue to try new strains, experiment with new products, take doses in different frequencies and pay close attention to how every new product/dose makes you feel. Your relationship to cannabis can turn on a dime(bag), so be sure to constantly test your tolerances and understand your limits so that you only have positive experiences with weed.


What info is on a cannabis label?

Cannabis labels are meant to provide information on what kind of cannabis product it is, the volume/number/size of the products, how potent they are and in what cannabinoid or terpene varieties. Cannabis labels typically also provide quality assurances, ingredients such as flavorings or preservatives, and information about how to consume the product - i.e. suggested serving sizes or doses.

How do you read CBD labels?

CBD contents listed on cannabis product labels are typically organized into two types: total CBD per package, and CBD potency per unit. CBD labels will usually read as: “200 mg total CBD” on something like a cannabis oil, or it can be listed as a percentage of the total package volume, i.e. “70% CBD”.

What does quality cannabis look like?

In terms of how quality cannabis looks, this will be entirely dependent on plant genetics, what kind of product it is, how it was harvested/dried/cured/packaged, in addition to a variety of other factors. Generally speaking, cannabis that is colorful, dense, voluminous, coated in trichomes and offers visual/textile complexity is considered to be of superior quality.

What are barcodes for cannabis products for?

Barcodes are meant to provide tracking of product batches in addition to individual units so that in case of any quality issues or risks to human health, the particular defective products can be tracked down and pulled from shelves. In addition to this safety feature of barcodes, SKU’s and other scannable barcodes make it easy for shipping, receiving and sales of cannabis products online and in stores.

How do I know if my weed is high quality?

High quality cannabis can take many forms, but one of the most obvious signifiers for quality is aroma. Pungent aromas that are complex and powerful usually attest to cannabis being of higher quality and potency - this has to do with its terpenes in addition to how it was prepared for final packaging. Visual appearances of trichomes, vibrant colors and larger-sized buds are also considerations for high quality cannabis. Marijuana labeling sometimes offers grades for quality, such as A, AA, AAA, AAAA and AAAA+.


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