1st December 2020
By Emily Ledger
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While a growing number of jurisdictions continue to legalise the use of medical – and increasingly, recreational – cannabis, consumer knowledge of cannabis products is becoming increasingly important. A recent study published in Cannabis and Cannabinoid Research aimed to determine just how informed cannabis consumers really are when it comes to THC and CBD levels in their usual cannabis products.

Medical cannabis is now legal in a large number of countries around the world. Furthermore, an increasing number of countries are beginning to consider the legalisation of recreational cannabis. Uruguay and Canada, along with a growing catalogue of US states, have already made the move. In addition, New Zealand recently rejected legalisation by only a tiny margin, implying an ever-growing appetite for changes to drug policy.

Furthermore, the strength of many illicit cannabis products has been found to have been consistently on the rise over the last few decades. A recent analysis of illicit cannabis from around the world found that the strength of some products had increased by almost 25% over the last 50 years.

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Understanding Consumer Knowledge of Cannabis Products

Cannabis products can include a variety of cannabinoids, however, the dominant two are tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD). Examples of popular cannabis products include oils and tinctures, vapes, edibles and beverages, concentrates, topicals, and flower/granulate.

A recent study, which assessed data from 6471 respondents using web-based surveys, focused on both legal and non-legal recreational US states as well as Canada pre-legalisation in 2018. All locations included had some form of medical cannabis legalisation. Data was collected using self-reported analysis of participants’ cannabis use in the last 12 months.

The respondents were asked to report the THC:CBD ratio of each of the cannabis products they usually used: “Which of the following best describes the type of [product] you usually use?”. This could include all of the aforementioned product categories.

Answers included: High THC, Low CBD; High THC, High CBD; Low THC, Low CBD; Low THC, High CBD; Other; I don’t know.

In addition, respondents were asked to report numeric THC and CBD levels in their usual cannabis products. Answers could be given in mg or %, as well as ‘I don’t know’ or ‘Refuse to answer’.

The Findings

This study found that respondents were more likely to report high THC levels than high CBD levels for all types of products, across all jurisdictions. Products reported to be high CBD, low THC represented less than 10% of all products, except for oils, tinctures and topicals.

Less than a third of respondents from each jurisdiction was able to report the numeric THC or CBD levels in their usual cannabis products. A larger proportion of respondents were able to report the THC:CBD ratio of the products.

The findings demonstrated some evidence of greater consumer knowledge in legal cannabis states; however, knowledge remains generally low in these jurisdictions.

Consumers in legal US states were more likely to know the THC:CBD ratio than consumers in Canada for eight out of the nine products. They were also more likely to know the THC:CBD ratio than consumers in illegal US states for five out of the nine products.

The findings showed that between one-fifth and one-half of participants were able to report a descriptive ratio (e.g. High CBD:Low THC). Participants who reported more frequent cannabis use were also more likely to report THC:CBD ratios. However, there was no way to verify the accuracy of self-reported THC and CBD levels reported by participants.

Conclusions

The authors of this study note that the labelling of cannabis products outside of cannabis markets is often inconsistent and sometimes non-existent, making these findings understandable. It is also noted that other indications that consumers often look to identify the strength of their cannabis products, such as strain or category (Indica / Sativa) are of little reliability in the identification of CBD and THC levels.

This study was generally consistent with similar studies that have aimed to gauge consumer knowledge of the strength of cannabis products. Overall, the findings of this study suggest that labelling implemented in legal cannabis states in the US may have a “modest, but limited impact on consumer knowledge of THC and CBD levels.”

The authors of this study suggest that future research in this area should focus on the evaluation of novel labelling practices that could improve consumer knowledge of THC. This also speaks to the importance of improving access to medical cannabis available on prescription where the concentrations of THC and CBD are known. This allows for physician-directed modification of THC and CBD quantities consumed to achieve desired clinical outcomes.

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