How to Label Pot

Imagine – just hypothetically – that a state decided to open a legal (at the state level) commercial market in cannabis, with some of the users intending to use the substance to treat some medical condition and others using it for other purposes.

Such a market would have an advantage over purely illicit markets that the state could require that the product be tested and labeled with its content of active agents. Those labels might (or might not) help consumers 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.

We’re pretty sure that THC is the primary “stoning” agent and that CBD (cannabidiol) has some buffering properties against, e.g., panic attacks. It seems likely that lots of the terpenoids that help give the product its flavor and odor also have their own psychoactivity, but the detailed science mostly hasn’t been done. It may also be the case that user-to-user variation in reactions will be higher for cannabis than it is for alcohol.

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.

Finally, the label might contain warnings of various kinds: e.g., not to drive under the influence.

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, but I’m damned if I can figure out what it is.

So let’s try a little bit of crowdsourcing. Please restrict your comments to the real of the technical and pragmatic; attempts to refight the drug wars in this space will be zapped. Place yourself in the regulator’s shoes and ask what you could do with currently available information that would be better than doing nothing.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-based Community]

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Mark Kleiman

Mark Kleiman is a professor of public policy at the New York University Marron Institute.