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Can We Trust the THC Labels on Our Edibles?

Vice labeling has a long and dicey history, so I went to a lab to find out what’s really in that weed cookie

Anyone who has tried edibles knows that dosing can be unpredictable — just ask New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd. And even an advanced consumer like me can easily get way too high. Recently, for instance, I drank half a Keef Cola and ended up dizzy and overwhelmed at the movies, cursing myself for having somehow overdone it on just half a can.

Similarly, my annual tradition of making pot pound cakes as Christmas gifts for my friends has gone terribly awry on more than one occasion, despite the fact that my friends and I have a solid decade of experience in making and consuming edibles. But as the cannabis industry has exploded in recent years, and the scope of available products has expanded into treats like coffee, cheese puffs and cocktails, dosage measurements and THC labeling have advanced accordingly.

I certainly follow them: At the dispensary, I’ll shell out more money for stuff with a higher THC content, avoiding anything that contains less than my desired minimum (10 milligrams) or maximum (150 milligrams).

Still, I began to wonder: Exactly how reliable are those dosages? Dispensary budtenders treat the strength printed on labels as unassailable, but then, that’s their job. But I also know two unassailable truths: 1) When a 100-milligram bottle of kombucha fucks me up way more than a 200-milligram cake pop, the trust instilled by the fancy packaging and labeling begins to wane; and 2) my homemade pound cake can’t be that much more of a psychedelic gamble than the rows of neatly packaged products at the dispensary. (I am, after all, something of an expert — and early adopter.)

And so, I decided to run my own experiment to see what I could find out about the truth in labeling when it comes to edibles.

First, though, some larger context: Obscured labeling in vice products is nothing new. Some people prefer to order beers rather than cocktails when they go out so the alcohol content of your drink won’t be dependent on the whims or skills of a bartender. If you’re at a restaurant and you order a large, fruity cocktail, you’re more or less clueless about exactly how much — or how little — booze you’re really being served. And if you’re interested in knowing how many calories that tall can of Lime-A-Rita has? You’re also SOL.

Similarly, the American cigarette industry, never one to be straightforward about its products, has since its inception worked to camouflage the true content of cigarettes through deceptive labels like “light” and “low-tar,” as well as feminine packaging and marketing aimed at women.

The same goes for sex toys.

In these cases it seems like we, the American people, have accepted the uncertainty inherent in the consumption of our vices, managing the risks as best we can and moving on with our inebriated lives. But if widely available cannabis products are our vice — or our medication — that doesn’t mean we have to keep living in the dark when it comes to their psychoactive content. We have the tools to educate ourselves, or at least attempt to.

In order then to get a sense of whether THC labeling on marijuana products is accurate, I sent a variety of edible products off for potency testing at SC Labs. Although you might see some variance in results between labs, SC Labs is considered the best cannabis testing lab in Southern California, and their labels and testing results appear on products all over the state. (SC Labs didn’t provide MEL any discounts on services and was unaware of the nature of this article.)

All in all, the experiment was carried out as scientifically as possible given the constraints. I would’ve liked to test multiple samples of the same products at different labs, but I didn’t have the budget for that — cannabis lab testing is quite expensive, which is another reason it’s impossible to expect uniformity in edibles labeling. You can pay to test one nug of your strain of flowers and be reasonably certain that the rest of your harvest will match those results. But with the cooking chemistry involved in edibles, it isn’t economically feasible for a company to test every single batch of a specific product.

Currently, Colorado requires lab testing for contaminants to be listed on all edible products, in addition to dosage labels. Here in California, we are yet to find out what all the laws will be regarding recreational marijuana use will be. Currently some dispensaries do require lab results in order to carry a product, but it varies from place to place. For now, potency — tested or estimated — is the only requirement for labeling medical edibles.

My own experiment began by choosing five different edibles of varying substance and potency — all milligram counts represent labeled THC content, as patients shouldn’t be too concerned about the content of other cannabinoids; THC is what elicits the strongest reaction from comestible marijuana:

  • 1 baked strawberry candy drop (25 milligrams)
  • 1 Cheeba Chews hybrid quad dose (70 milligrams)
  • 1 Korova Saturday Morning Cookie (150 milligrams)
  • 1 Kiva blackberry dark chocolate bar (180 milligrams)
  • 1 passionfruit Cannabis Quencher (200 milligrams)

Testing took a few days after I handed my samples to the courier; I received my results in a secure online Dropbox. According to the SC Labs website, its cannabinoid testing methods “utilize high performance liquid chromatography (HPLC/DAD) to provide full cannabinoid profiling.”

“HPLC works by extracting a sample into a solvent, isolating the target compound and employing a UV detector to measure concentration,” the site explains. “Unlike gas chromatography, liquid chromatography does not heat the sample. HPLC is therefore still reliable when measuring heat sensitive compounds such as THCA and CBDA.”

(This was something I’d wondered about, since one of the first things you learn when cooking with pot is that heat breaks down THC.)

In the end, no product tested as having the exact quantity of THC indicated on its label. Some had a little less, some a little more — and one had a lot less than the label indicated. The results were as follows:

  • Baked strawberry candy drop: Tested at 21 milligrams of THC; labeled at 25 milligrams
  • Cheeba Chews: Tested at 63 milligrams; labeled at 70 milligrams
  • Saturday Morning Cookie: Tested at 157 milligrams; labeled at 150 milligrams
  • Blackberry dark chocolate bar: Tested at 149 milligrams; labeled at 180 milligrams
  • Passionfruit Cannabis Quencher: Tested at 123 milligrams; labeled at 200 milligrams

The two smaller, lower-dosage candy products contained slightly less THC than stated on the packaging. There’s not much of a difference those 4 to 7 extra milligrams might give you in terms of feeling, but it’s good to know that you’re not going to take a whole Cheeba Chew and end up floating away on a 90-milligram cloud.

But as you can see, it gets a little dicier once we go above 100 milligrams. I was pleasantly surprised that only one sample contained more THC than labeled — it’s better for a product to be less potent than you expected than more. And, again, if you’re eating 150 milligrams of weed in one go, 7 milligrams more isn’t gonna be the thing that ruins it for you. I’ve had good experiences with Korova (the brand that makes the Saturday Morning Cookie) in the past, and the test results don’t undermine that for me.

What’s most concerning about the two wider discrepancies between labeled and actual content — 31 milligrams for the Kiva bar and a whopping 77 milligrams for the Cannabis Quencher — is that you’re not getting the promised bang for your buck. Both of these products seem to be meant for consumption in parts — i.e., most consumers will eat a few pieces of cannabis chocolate, not a whole bar at one time — and there’s a big difference between drinking half a bottle of juice and ingesting 60 milligrams of THC vs. the 100 milligrams you were expecting. So while it might seem economically prudent to buy a high-dosage product, these results suggest that you may be better off spending your money on multiple low-dosage edibles with better reliability.

All that said, edible dosages and THC content are always estimates. And although marijuana is becoming legal and available in an ever-expanding number of states, there’s still no way to achieve complete and tested consumer certainty across the board. Not to mention another unassailable truth: Edibles affect everyone differently depending on tolerance, body mass and/or karma, so even a perfect label won’t be that helpful if you don’t know your own limits.