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Marijuana Edibles and Labeling

Creating messaging to keep users and nonusers safe

As the adoption of laws legalizing the use of marijuana for medical and recreational purposes has spread to more than half of US states, edible marijuana has become increasingly popular among users. In a nationally representative study of adults in the US, nearly 30 percent of respondents who had ever used cannabis reported consuming it in either edible or beverage form. And in Colorado, the first state to legalize marijuana, edibles accounted for 45 percent of the total legal sales in 2016.

Marijuana edibles are not regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, so manufacturers are not required to provide consumers with ingredients, nutritional information or product warnings. Rather each state must determine their own labeling regulations.

Consuming marijuana edibles—rather than smoking or vaping marijuana—can cause longer-lasting and more intense highs, because the intoxicating effects of edibles can be delayed by two or more hours. While the recommended serving size is 10 mg of THC, the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana, some products may contain more than one serving, so it is important that the product label clearly conveys this information. A poorly informed consumer could potentially consume too much and experience effects for which they are unprepared.

User Perspectives on Edible Marijuana Packaging

Our team of experts set out to explore consumer understanding of the labeling information on edibles and how labels could be improved to ensure the safety of both users and nonusers. We conducted 12 focus groups with adult users and nonusers in Denver and Seattle.

The focus groups identified several areas where current labeling requirements could be improved. Focus group participants said the labels were information heavy, with a confusing blend of different warnings, and that people could be easily overwhelmed and simply not read the labels. Our researchers noted that the labels did not follow best practices in health communication to keep messaging simple, minimize the number of messages, and use graphics.

More Marijuana Labeling Education and Resources are Needed

One research takeaway was the need for a universal symbol that clearly conveys that edibles contain marijuana. Recently, Colorado changed their universal symbol from the seal for the state division that regulates edibles to include an exclamation mark and the letters “THC.”

The research also showed that consumption recommendations were not clear and could be improved so that first-time users and visitors from states where edibles are not sold legally are aware of the potential for delayed effects.

In Seattle, users preferred the voluntary information provided by some manufacturers over the state-mandated information because it gave specific advice that they found more informative and useful. Many participants in both locations believed nutritional information should be required, not voluntary, and several expressed surprise to learn that materials like butane were used in the creation of certain edibles.

Another finding from the focus groups was that current users of marijuana products were personally invested in their states developing helpful and instructive information for edible labels. Participants felt tourism could attract inexperienced users whose behavior may lead to negative consequences and result in the end of the legal sale of edibles for recreational use.

Many participants talked about the need to educate new users or provide a web address for a neutral organization that allows people to find more information about what they are going to consume and how it will affect them.

Moving Forward to Consult and Advise in Other States

Base on the Seattle and Denver focus group insights, we are working with other states that have legalized edibles to help inform their plans for labeling regulation. We met with officials in the state of Oregon and participated in ongoing webinars with the state of Washington as they examine their regulations. Additionally, we have published our findings and plan to present our findings at conferences so that other states might benefit from what we learned.

RTI continues to research various aspects of marijuana edibles to develop an evidence base that can keep state regulators and consumers informed. Other research activities include surveys of legal users twitter patterns, responses to current labeling as well as interviews with budtenders—people who work in dispensaries and assist consumers with their purchases.

Ultimately, our research aims to support public and private efforts to close the information gaps on existing cannabis labels—to help protect people who use edibles and those who may elect not to do so based on label information.