Front Row

Cannabis labels

By Jack Kenny | January 24, 2014

Pain and pleasure, pleasure and pain. Enhance the one, subdue the other. One plant has the power to do both. Hundreds of thousands are in prisons today for possessing that one plant. In the United States over the past few years, 20 states have decided that those in pain could purchase marijuana with a doctor’s prescription to alleviate their discomfort. The citizens of two states have gone a big step further and have made cannabis legal to purchase, possess and consume for recreation.

As the rest of the nation (and the world) watches, those two states – Colorado and Washington – have undertaken a change that legitimizes a giant industry that has operated in the shadows until now. Farmers can now grow the weed, businesses can now process it into consumable forms, and retailers can sell it. When the legalization took effect January 1 in Colorado, demand exceeded supply.

Cannabis legalization has been challenging on several fronts. Retailers have been forced to deal only in cash, because banks are unwilling to establish accounts that will let the sellers accept credit cards, according to The New York Times. Bankers’ fears are real: They are interstate companies, and overseen by a federal government that still considers pot punishable by incarceration. This forces the retailers to amass mountains of cash, which makes them justifiably uncomfortable.

The governments of Washington and Colorado have had their challenges as well. They had to act fast to create bodies of regulations to control the new industry. Colorado’s State Licensing Authority worked with its Department of Revenue, while Washington assigned marijuana oversight to its liquor control board.

Legalization already is having a positive effect on the economy. All marijuana products in the two states are taxed, and last year Washington estimated that it could gross up to $2 billion in tax money alone. Jobs are being created at every level of the industry. Retired police officers are in demand to serve as security guards at dispensaries (and probably on those cash-laden trips to the bank).

Regulations cover everything from growing to processing to retail to consumption. Labels and packaging are addressed in the new rules, of course. The products must be tested periodically. Test results must appear on the label affixed to the container. Every step in the distribution channel requires a label.

The manufacturing facility that prepares marijuana products in Colorado must contain a fair amount of information, including license numbers, batch numbers, “a complete list of all nonorganic pesticides, fungicides and herbicides used during the cultivation of the retail marijuana,” and a list of “solvents and chemicals used in the creation of any retail marijuana concentrate.”
That label also must display “a clear set of usage instructions for non-edible retail marijuana product.” (Place bud in pipe; light match.)

At the consumer level, the labels will get quite busy with information. Colorado requires, among other things, that the label include the date of sale to the consumer; net weight in grams to at least the tenth of a gram; a complete list of pesticides and other -cides used in cultivation; and five warnings, including age restriction (21 or older), health risks in general, health risks for pregnant women, heavy machinery use, and illegality of the product outside of the state.

If the cannabis has been tested at a lab, the label must show the potency as a range of percentages for cannabinoids and tetrahydracannabinol (THC). Expiration dates must be there, as well, though it’s hard to imagine a pothead tossing an “expired” bag of weed into the trash. The labels also must say whether the product in the container has been safety tested or not, and that marijuana is not legal outside of Colorado.

There’s more. If the stuff inside the package is meant to be eaten, chewed or drunk, as opposed to smoked, more warnings appear on the labels: “This product is infused with marijuana,” and “The intoxicating effects of this product may be delayed by two or more hours.”

One would think that label converters would have a windfall decorating packages for this new industry. It’s still early for that to occur, it seems.

“We haven’t seen a whole lot of new business yet,” says Tammy MacLachlan, customer service manager at Lightning Labels, an all digital converter in Denver, CO. The company has been making labels for companies in the medical marijuana business, which is different from the recreational weed industry. Most of the products being labeled, she adds, are “medibles,” products that can be eaten or drunk.

“I foresee labels coming into play with the edible products” in the recreational pot sector, she says. “There are so many different strains, and they will have to be prepackaged.”

Everyone knows that marijuana is smoked, but it is also enjoyed in other ways, such as with vaporizers designed to isolate the psychoactive ingredients without burning or producing smoke, which can be an irritant as well as carcinogenic. But the big story is in the ingestibles, those products that you put into your mouth and swallow. Today they are a far cry from those brownies your girlfriend baked in 1974.

One of the more visible players in the oral consumables game is Dixie Elixirs, a Denver-based company that markets drinks, treats, topical oils and lotions, botanicals, sublingual drops, pills and capsules, and powders, all of which contain THC. The edibles include chocolate bars and truffles, chai mints and Dixie rolls. At, available products include MariButter, drops, lemonade, and a host of health and beauty products. These products, however, are from California and for Californians who have a doctor’s order for medical cannabis.

High Times, the magazine for pot aficionados, recently published a listing of the 11 best cannabis edibles that were entered in the 2013 Seattle US Cannabis Cup competition. For converters, it’s a big new world out there.

Mark Kleiman is professor of public policy at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs, and is the editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. He teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, and blogs about cannabis laws and policies. In a 2013 post he hypothesized about a state legalizing marijuana and labeling the products. “Those labels might (or might not) help consumers understand what experience to expect from roughly how much of the product, avoiding unintentional overdose. They might also ‘nudge’ users toward less hazardous patterns of use.

“With respect to edible products, the label might try to inform consumers about how the content of (e.g.) a brownie compares to the content of some more familiar dosage form, such as a joint.

“Since there’s more relevant information than can be legibly placed on a package label, there could also be required package inserts (as for pharmaceuticals) and/or a state-maintained website with information about cannabis and about how to interpret the information on the label.

“There must be some optimal labeling system,” he adds, “but I’m damned if I can figure out what it is.” He then invited readers to offer their thoughts.

They responded with suggestions of use-by dates, percentages of active ingredients, place of origin, and the like. Reader Mike offered this: “Americans are not going to tolerate being treated like they’re in junior high by government over legal marijuana. That barrier was passed in November 2012. Regulation must be common sense, easy to follow, and widely accepted as beneficial. Try twisting the cuffs back on with onerous and silly requirements and it’s just not going to work. The backlash will be harsh against those in government that think they’re gonna some how win back with bureaucracy what they can no longer do with law enforcement.”

Finally, Tony C. came up with a winner: “I suggest this easy-to-comprehend, graphic representation of potency: between one and five tiny illustrations of Häagen-Dazs cartons.”

The author is president of Jack Kenny Media, a communications firm specializing in the packaging industry, and is the former editor of L&NW magazine. He can be reached at
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