As a cannabis consumer, it’s essential to be able to trust the potency of a product.

Whether you’re wanting a hit of THC, which offers a more psychedelic high, or CBD, better known for its clear-headed, calming effects, knowing the dose you’re consuming will help you anticipate how it will make you feel. If a product contains less THC or CBD than it claims, you’re getting ripped off. If it contains more than it states on the label, you could be in for a debilitating experience.

Whether it’s edibles, concentrates, or flower, state laws require every package to include THC and CBD content. But are those potency labels accurate? A growing body of research suggests they are not.

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A recent study on potency labels conducted in October 2021 by SC Labs, a cannabis and hemp testing firm based in Santa Cruz, CA, analyzed the potency of 29 hemp-based CBD teas and coffees. More than half (52%) of those products were labeled incorrectly for the amount of CBD contained. The range of potency inaccuracy ranged from 11% to 62%.

“In the hemp CBD marketplace, it’s still sort of like the Wild, Wild West,” says Josh Wurzer, president of SC Labs. “You can kind of get away with whatever you want.”

“I was alarmed when we first started testing in the THC industry, back in, like, 2010. There was a perception by consumers and patients that if it’s on the shelf, it’s been tested already.”

Dr. Jeffrey Raber is a chemist and the founder and CEO of The Werc Shop, one of the nation’s leading cannabis testing laboratories. Raber co-authored a study in 2015 in collaboration with the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine to test the THC content of edibles. In 75 products sourced from dispensaries across Seattle, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, the researchers discovered only 17% correctly labeled their THC content, while 23% were under-labeled, and 60% were over-labeled.

“I was alarmed when we first started testing in the THC industry, back in, like, 2010. There was a perception by consumers and patients that if it’s on the shelf, it’s been tested already,” Raber says.

But that’s not always the case. While the FDA will take action against products with “unsubstantiated therapeutic claims,” especially when it comes to CBD, the agency doesn’t provide clear labeling guidance in general. There is no federal regulation of cannabis products. When it comes to the state level, laws on cannabis and hemp vary, so states have different requirements for what needs to be reported, what needs to be tested, and the margin of error allowed.

“We’re talking about truth in labeling, not just as far as dosage, but also contaminants. Like, are these products verified to be free of pesticides and other manufacturing contaminants?” Wurzer says. “We just need some common-sense regulations and for the FDA to step in.”

As the cannabis market expands, third-party lab testing, manufacturing oversight to ensure proper labeling, and government guidance likely will too. But in the meantime, there are questions consumers can ask to ensure they’re navigating the cannabis and hemp space safely.

Raber suggests asking the right questions to see who’s behind the scenes and why they’re making the products. See which manufacturers are willing to share certificates of analysis and whether they are testing from batch to batch. How long have they kept their formulation consistent? What is the company’s background? Have they been in manufacturing before? And do they have the experience to address potential problems as they arise during the manufacturing process?

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Consumers can even reach out to testing labs directly to ask these questions. Sometimes brands will put the testing facility they use on the packaging of their products. Other times, consumers may have to reach out to the company — or the dispensaries that sell them — to know what lab to contact. These labs are often full of people who pride themselves on giving people the answers they’re looking for.

“Just trying to have those conversations as much as you can is really helpful,” Raber says. “Most everyone in cannabis is very happy to talk about it. Maybe that’s a cannabis side effect.”

Jordan Winter, an award-winning journalist
Jordan Winter
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Jordan Winter, an award-winning journalist based in Lawrence, KS, comes from a long line of storytellers. A member of the Cherokee Nation, Jordan reports on the issues most important to her — justice, sustainability, and community — to make a positive impact on the world. She graduated from the University of Kansas in 2019 with degrees in journalism and political science. Check out her work at jrdnwntr.com.