The process of labeling cannabis-infused edible products in the United States is complicated, for two related reasons. The first is that cannabis’s federal status as an illegal product means that only those states that have legalized it have developed packaging regulations. The second issue is that, where packaging and labeling regulations exist, there are notoriously tricky challenges that can even require companies to have full-time compliance experts in place just to keep track of the vast array of regulatory variation among these states.
While none of the U.S. state labeling regulations are worded in exactly the same way, there are some areas that overlap, says Michelle Mabugat, a lawyer with Los Angeles-based firm Greenberg Glusker who has worked in the cannabis sector for 11 years. Requirements for labeling seem to consistently include disclosing THC and other cannabinoid content, as well as manufacturer contact and licensing information, and most states—but not all—require batch numbers or health risk warnings. Many states also require some kind of cannabis symbol.
Because cannabis-infused edible products remain illegal at the federal level, they are not regulated by FDA. State regulators are the authorities overseeing packaging and labeling for legal cannabis products. Nick McCormick, a packaging consultant at Taylor Prime Labels and Packaging in Fairfax, Va., sits on the packaging and labeling committee of the National Cannabis Industry Association (NCIA). “I’ve been in printing for 27 years, and I’ve been navigating the alcohol industry for 12,” he says. “Selling wine, beer, vodka, gin, bourbon—that’s hard to navigate, with the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau. Cannabis is 10 times harder.”
McCormick sees the immediate challenge for packages and labels in the form of audits from state regulators. “One of the most complicated parts of running a cannabis business is making sure what you’re putting on the shelf is compliant,” he says. “You could be audited on any given day.”
The regulations reflect lingering uneasiness about the safety of cannabis as a product—stoked by its continued status as a federally illegal drug. Mabugat notes that governments who have legalized the products have listened to stakeholders, including those vehemently opposed to cannabis. As a result, she says, “In order to make the public at large give broad support, the regulators and politicians almost have to overregulate. It’s to the point that we might as well be dealing with uranium at the level of regulation cannabis receives in the U.S., to placate those concerns and help unwind all the stigma about perceived dangers of this plant.”
By the nature of legalization, cannabis regulation has been carried out by agencies that have never before regulated cannabis, a circumstance Mabugat says has left state regulators behind the actual industry. “At least in California, the regulators have been very intentional about hearing feedback from industry operators,” Mabugat says, “hearing what’s not practical, and constantly updating the regs to catch up to where the industry really is and has always been. Every year, the regulators try to close that gaping hole. But everyone was up in arms when the initial regulations came out; the sentiment was ‘Obviously you guys don’t know anything about cannabis.’”
McCormick notes that, in Virginia, cannabis is regulated by the pharmaceutical processing division within the state department of health, which he says doesn’t know much about cannabis products. “Some states have gotten smart and formed their own commissions around cannabis regulations, but [in] most states [the regulations] are handled by the state department of health,” he adds.
Darwin Millard, of Evergreen, Colo., is a longtime cannabis extractor who is an executive committee member of standards and training organization ASTM International’s Technical Committee D37 on Cannabis. “All the content and the barcodes and universal symbols are all different. If you’re a multi-state operator brand, you have a compliance department in each state that focuses on labels. Especially if you have a tremendous number of SKUs, developing compliant labels can be a whole department’s full-time job, especially if each batch has different batch data that you have to report for cannabinoid content specifically.”