HOW TO READ A CANNABIS LABEL
Strict regulation in Canada means that there’s a lot of information on the packaging/labelling of cannabis products and, honestly, making sense of it can sometimes feel overwhelming. So let’s streamline the process! Here we breakdown what you need to know:
1. THC Warning Symbol: Every product that contains THC – even trace amounts – must be labelled with this standard “stop sign” symbol. The only time you won’t see it is if the product doesn’t have THC.
2/3. Logo and Brand/Product Name: Producers are heavily restricted in what’s allowed on labels. On the front of the bag, only the product/brand name and the producer’s brand logo can be shown. In products with THC, the producer's logo cannot be bigger than the THC symbol.
4. THC and CBD vs. Total THC and Total CBD
This one can be confusing! In products like dried cannabis, most of the THC content is actually THCA. When cannabis is heated via smoking, cooking or vapourizing, the THCA transforms into THC. Total THC shows the amount of THC after the cannabis has been heated and all the THCA has converted to THC. This is also known as potency.
THC and CBD potency may be shown as a percentage, or as milligrams per gram. There are 1000 milligrams per gram, so a THC product with a potency of 250mg per gram is the same as a cannabis product with 25% potency. (see our page on THC EXPLAINED for more information about the differences between THCA and THC).5. Child-Resistant Closure: All cannabis products sold in Canada must have child-resistant packaging – and for products that are multi-use, that packaging has to be resealable.
There’s some important stuff on the back of the bag, too:
- Licensed Producer Contact Info: Every cannabis producer must provide a phone number and email so that consumers can reach out if they have any questions.
- Expiry and Packaged On Date: Not all cannabis products have an expiry date, but they are all required to show the date that they’re packaged on. Remember that this is not necessarily the date that the cannabis is harvested or processed – just the date that it is sealed in its container.
- Lot Number: Canada requires strict tracking of cannabis products, so all cannabis has to be recorded by a lot number that can be used to trace the cannabis from seed to sale.
- Net Weight: This can be shown front or back. For products other than dried cannabis, this might be listed as “dried cannabis equivalency.” Because there are restrictions placed on how much cannabis an individual can buy per day, “dried cannabis equivalency” is used to show how much dried cannabis an oil, edible or concentrate equates to.
What Is THC?
THC – or Delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol for the more chemically inclined – is the main psychoactive compound found in the cannabis plant. It occurs naturally, mostly concentrated in the flowers, though there are smaller amounts in leaves and other parts of the plant. Different cannabis strains have widely varying concentrations of THC. For example, industrial hemp plants may have under 0.3% THC in their flowers, while some strains can have over 30%. Typically, anything under 10% is considered a low-potency cannabis flower, while anything over 20% is considered high potency.
THC is a carefully controlled substance under Canadian law and can only be legally purchased from federally licensed stores, or with a prescription from licensed medical suppliers like Alterna Pharma.
What Does THC Do?
THC is responsible for the psychoactive effects of cannabis. Put simply, it’s what gets you “high.” This means it changes nervous system functions and alters perception, mood, consciousness, cognition, and/or behaviour. Specifically, psychoactive effects of THC may include euphoria, relaxation or stress-relief, hyper-awareness of sensation, increased libido, and boosted creativity. It can also affect the body physically by increasing appetite and helping to relieve pain.
Some users can also experience negative side-effects such as anxiety.
What’s the Difference Between THC and THCA?
In its natural form, most of the THC in cannabis is actually a non-psychoactive chemical called tetrahydrocannabinolic acid, or THCA. And even though it’s one of the most abundant and therapeutic compounds produced by the plant, in this raw state, it can’t get you high. But once heated via smoking, vapourizing, or cooking, THCA converts to THC, with full psychoactivity.
In Canada, all cannabis products must be labelled with their THCA content. For more info on how this appears on a label and how to interpret it, please see HOW TO READ A CANNABIS LABEL.
What Is CBD?
CBD (Cannabidiol) is one of the 113 cannabinoids identified in cannabis so far. Unlike THC, it’s non-intoxicating, which means it won’t get you high.
Legal Status of CBD
Because CBD is cheap and easy to extract from hemp plants, it’s most commonly seen as an oil or extract, though there are some high-CBD cannabis strains available for inhalation or vapourizing.
CBD regulations vary all over the world, so in countries such as the United States and Europe it’s common to see CBD products being sold in health stores, groceries, and online. But in Canada CBD is a controlled substance, so it’s regulated by the same laws as THC, and can only be legally purchased from federally licensed suppliers (known as Licensed Producers or “LPs”).
What Does CBD Do?
While scientific research on the benefits of CBD is ongoing, it’s currently most often used in relaxation and the treatment of chronic pain, as well as in the treatment of some forms of epilepsy. Consumers report using CBD products for a wide variety of conditions, though we recommend talking to a doctor before using CBD as a specific treatment.
CBG and CBN
Closely related to CBD are two new cannabinoids you may see in new products: CBG and CBN. These two cannabinoids naturally occur in much smaller quantities than CBD or THC, so they are typically only seen as extracts or components of edibles.
Scientific research continues for both CBG and CBN, but some users suggest that CBG is an effective anti-inflammatory and can help in the treatment of headaches and migraines. And CBN has shown promise in improving sleep and treating insomnia, as well as soothing muscle aches and pains.
Both CBG and CBN have been found to be non-intoxicating, though there is evidence that CBN can be mildly psychoactive at large doses.
Whether used medically or recreationally, edibles have become one of the most popular ways to consume cannabis, and there are a wide variety of edible formats, each with unique advantages.
Legal Status of Edibles
In Canada, edibles are allowed for sale in both the medical and recreational cannabis markets. Pre-manufactured edibles, such as chocolates and gummies, are limited to 10mg THC per package. The 10mg THC limit does not apply to cannabis oils or cannabis capsules, which can both be sold in packages of up to 1000mg.
NOTE: There is no limit on the CBD content of edibles.
What Do Edibles Do?
Edibles typically hit harder than inhaled cannabis for several reasons: Firstly, with inhaled cannabis, not all of the vapour is inhaled; but with edibles 100% of the cannabinoid is absorbed by the body. Secondly, edible cannabis is processed differently by the body. The science on this is ongoing, but current consensus is that as THC is processed by the liver, it is converted into a new compound known as 11-Hydroxy-THC, which has stronger psychoactive effects than the THC from inhalation.
Because edibles need to be digested and processed by the liver, it is common for edibles to take longer to take effect. Typically, users who consume edibles will begin feeling effects within 30 minutes, but for some it can take much longer.
CAVEAT: It’s extremely important – especially for new users – to give edibles adequate time to take effect. DO NOT TAKE REPEATED DOSES until you are confident of the effect edibles will have on you.
Types of Edibles
Gummies and Chocolates
The most popular edibles formats are gummies and chocolates, which come in a wide variety of sizes and flavours. It’s important to note that gummies and chocolates cannot be legally sold in the recreational market in Quebec, which has banned all edibles that resemble sweets or desserts. However, medical patients in Quebec can purchase these edibles from medical suppliers such as Alterna Pharma with a prescription.
Beverages have grown in popularity as an edible format in the recreational market, but are less common in the medical market.
Oils and Capsules
Cannabis oils can be used as an edible – either by measuring/eating directly, or as an ingredient in the manufacture of homemade edibles. Making your own edibles at home is completely legal in Canada, as long as the cannabis used to make them is legally obtained.
Cannabis capsules are simply cannabis oil that has been pre-portioned into individual capsules. The most common format for these are “gel caps,” with cannabis oil contained in an edible shell. Capsules are a great way to take a daily cannabis dosage without all the added sugar and calories of most edibles.
Dried Cannabis Explained
In Canada, inhaling dried cannabis via smoking or vapourizing is the most common way to consume cannabis so, correspondingly, most of the cannabis sold in the country is dried cannabis flower.
Cannabis comes from the plant Cannabis Sativa, a plant indigenous to Southeast Asia that’s been cultivated throughout history for medical and/or recreational purposes. Hemp comes from the same plant, but is grown from different strains that are used for the fibres, seeds and stems. The leaves and stems of medical cannabis contain much lower concentrations of cannabinoids and are typically not smoked or inhaled, though they are often used to make cannabis extracts and concentrates.
There are literally thousands of stains of cannabis – each with different flavours, aromas and profiles – so it would be almost impossible to learn them all. Luckily, you don’t have to! But here’s a primer on what you should know:
Sativa vs. Indica vs. Hybrid
Sativa and Indica are the two major “families” of cannabis strains, and “Hybrid”’ is a combination of both. While it’s commonly understood that Sativas and Indicas affect users differently (Indicas are said to be more relaxing/sedative with a comfortable “body high,” while Sativas are often more energizing/stimulating with a “head high”), their names actually refer to the shape of the plant. Sativas are usually tall and leggy, while Indicas tend to be short and bushy. The actual effect of a strain doesn’t have anything to do with whether it's a Sativa or Indica, but rather the combination of cannabinoids and terpenes found in the flower. Find out more at THC EXPLAINED, CBD EXPLAINED, and TERPENES EXPLAINED.
NOTE: While there are far too many strains to discuss in detail here, we provide info on every strain (we carry?) on our products pages.
(we’ll add a section on ‘How to read our product page’ at a later date. That will help a reader understand the cannabinoids, terpenes, and strains of each product).
Cannabis is such a complex little plant! Amongst the thousands of available cannabis strains, 113 cannabinoids and over 400 terpenes have been identified, leading to an almost endless variety of tastes, aromas and effects.
What’s a Terpene?
Terpenes are naturally occurring compounds that are responsible for the way plants smell and taste. More than 30,000 terpenes have been identified in nature, with over 400 of those occurring in cannabis plants in some form – though experts have only linked a handful of them to specific effects.
Terpenes occur naturally in cannabis in various concentrations and combinations. A cannabis strain with less than 0.5% terpenes would be considered to have a low concentration and would be very lightly flavoured, whereas cannabis with 3-5% or higher terpenes is considered very high, with very rich aromas and flavours.
It’s not uncommon for a cannabis strain to have dozens of terpenes or more, but typically a strain is most influenced by its top 1-3 terpenes, which we refer to as the “dominant terpene.” For example, a very common terpene is Limonene, and there are many strains such as Sour Tangie where Limonene is a dominant terpene. These strains tend to have strong citrus flavours with notes of lemon and orange peel. By reviewing the dominant terpenes in each strain, you should have a good sense of what kind of flavours to expect.
The Entourage Effect
Cannabis users find that different strains of cannabis affect them differently. Some energize, while others sedate. This is believed to be caused by the “entourage effect,” which describes how the complex cocktail of compounds work in concert to uniquely affect the physiology of the user.
Vapes are a great alternative for those who wish to inhale cannabis without all of the harshness that comes from smoking it.
Instead of burning dried cannabis, vapes use a superheated metal coil to heat up a cannabis oil to the point where it becomes a vapour for inhaling.
Vapes typically come as cartridges filled with cannabis oil that are designed to be screwed into a base that contains the battery for heating the oil. There are also disposable vapes with built in batteries and cartridges.
Legislation in Canada does not allow cannabis producers to add artificial or manufactured flavours to vapes, however producers are allowed to make vapes flavoured with the naturally occurring terpenes from cannabis. For this reason vapes with oil from very flavourful cultivars such as Kush Mints are extremely popular.
Cartridges: The most common form of cannabis vape. Cartridges contain the cannabis ingredient itself – normally CO2 oil or Cannabis Distillate (for more information on CO2 Oil and cannabis distillate visit EXTRACTION METHODS EXPLAINED). Almost all cannabis vapes are 510 cartridges – 510 refers to the threading on the cartridge, which is designed to screw on to a battery. A 510 vape cartridge can be used with any 510 vape battery, even if it's not sold by the same company who made the cartridge.
Cartridges typically come in 0.5ml and 1.0ml sizes. The smaller cartridges can contain up to 500mg of cannabinoids, depending on the potency of the oil inside, while the larger cartridges can contain up to 1000mg of cannabinoids.
Disposables: Some vapes come as a complete system, where the cartridge and the battery are built into one device and a separate battery is not needed. These vapes are designed to be single use, so they can’t be refilled, and are simply discarded when the cannabis oil is used up.
Extraction Methods Explained
Cannabis extracts are beneficial because extraction allows for higher cannabinoid purity, accurate dosing, and strong, longer-lasting concentrates.
Crude Extract-CO2 and Ethanol
The simplest form of extracts are called “crude extracts,” and the most common methods are ethanol and CO2.
Ethanol is a popular extraction method in the cannabis industry because it’s efficient, however it tends to leave a lot of byproducts in the remaining cannabis oil, and some terpenes and aromatic compounds don’t mix with alcohol, so they’re lost in the process.
To make an ethanol extract, dried or fresh cannabis is mixed with an industrial-grade grain alcohol like high-proof, flavourless vodka. The cannabis is agitated and left to marinate in the alcohol, which binds with the cannabinoids and draws them out into the liquid. Then, after almost all of its cannabinoids have been mixed into the alcohol, the cannabis is strained out.
Finally, the alcohol is removed from the mixture, leaving a pure cannabis extract containing the cannabinoids and terpenes, as well as some of the plant compounds like chlorophyll and vegetable waxes.
CO2 extraction is similar to ethanol, except that instead of mixing cannabis with alcohol, it’s mixed with Carbon Dioxide (CO2). When carbon dioxide is held under super high pressure, it becomes a liquid, and when liquid CO2 is mixed with cannabis in a pressurized container, the CO2 rapidly absorbs the cannabinoids from the cannabis. After the liquid CO2 is infused with cannabinoids, the pressure is released and the CO2 turns back into a gas, leaving behind a thick oil full of all the goodness of the cannabis.
CO2 is considered to be a higher-quality extraction method because it removes more cannabinoids and terpenes without damaging them, which retains more of the character of the cannabis used for extracting. It also leaves almost no residue, whereas ethanol often leaves a small amount of alcohol behind.
Crude vs. Distillate vs. Isolate
Crude extract is sometimes turned into cannabis distillate. A cannabis distillate is a crude extract that’s been distilled – just like vodka or whiskey. The extract is heated until it turns into a vapour, and then the cannabinoids are separated from the rest of the compounds in the extract. This allows a cannabis producer to “clean up” crude extract, concentrating the cannabinoids by removing impurities like chlorophyll and plant matter. A crude cannabis oil normally contains 40-60% cannabinoids. A distillate will normally contain 90-99% cannabinoids. The tradeoff is that cleaning up the crude cannabis oil also removes things like terpenes that give the oil its unique flavours. However, skilled extractors are often able to either retain the terpenes in a distillate, or recombine them into the final product.
Isolate is distillate which has been taken one step further: cannabinoids are put through a further clarifying process that removes everything except the pure cannabinoid itself. Isolates are typically 98-99.9% pure, and are normally used for things like creating cannabis medicines and capsules.
Cannabis Testing Explained
Canada has some of the strictest cannabis testing requirements in the world. Before being released to the public every cannabis product – from dried flower to edibles, vapes and extracts – has to be tested by a third-party laboratory against rigorous standards.
In order to be sold to the public, a cannabis producer must test the levels of cannabinoids – specifically THC and CBD – as well as test the cannabis for contaminants such as mould, microorganisms, and heavy metals. Cannabis also needs to be tested for pesticides, and extracts must be tested for residual solvents, which are required to be removed before the product is sold.
Many producers also choose to test their cannabis for terpenes, but this isn’t required by law. They do it to draw attention to the quality of their weed.
All of these test results are recorded in a Certificate of Analysis, or COA. Producers are required by law to keep their COAs and to provide them to Health Canada for examination and auditing. Some producers also like to post the COAs of their products, but it isn’t required.
What’s in a COA?
COAs are pretty extensive documents. In order to test cannabis, a lab has to have special approval from Health Canada, which is the country’s governing health body. And all samples must adhere to a strict, documented chain of custody.
CERTIFICATE OF ANALYSIS DOCUMENT
Producers are required to test for THC, THCA, CBD and CBDA – though they will often test for minor cannabinoids such as CBG and CB as well.
LOD, LOQ and ND
LOD refers to “Level of Detection.” This means that in order to be detected by the lab, the cannabis must contain at least the percentage listed.
TERPENE ANALYSIS AND MOISTURE CONTENTAs previously mentioned, Cannabis producers aren’t required by law to test for Terpenes, but often do so to measure the quality of their cannabis (higher terpenes means more flavourful and aromatic cannabis).
Terpenes are listed in descending order. While over 400 terpenes have been identified in cannabis, most producers will choose to only test for the most common types. Find out more at TERPENES EXPLAINED.
Controlling moisture is a vital step for growing good cannabis. If cannabis is too dry, it will burn too fast and won’t be enjoyable to smoke. If it’s too moist, the cannabis may start to grow mould or microorganisms before it gets to the consumer. Reputable growers maintain moisture within a target range that balances product safety and consumer satisfaction.
TOXINS, MICROBE AND HEAVY METALS
In order to be sold, cannabis must be tested for microbes, which include things like bacteria, mould, yeast, and aflatoxin (aflatoxins are the poisonous spores excreted by certain types of mould).
Canada has some of the strictest safety requirements in the world for cannabis, and the level of microbes (CFU/colony forming units) allowed in cannabis is comparable to those used in the pharmaceutical industry.
Producers must also test their cannabis for harmful levels of heavy metals such as arsenic, mercury and lead, which can be absorbed through the roots of the cannabis plant into the final product.
Health Canada is very strict on the use of pesticides, and Cannabis producers are required to test their products for over 90 restricted pesticides before releasing products for sale.
Ultimately, Canada’s rigorous cannabis testing – supported by a series of labs and government agencies that are constantly auditing producers – ensures that the cannabis products supplied to Canadian consumers are some of the safest and cleanest in the world.