Cannabis-infused drinks and snacks are displayed at Apothekare dispensary in Mission Valley.
Cannabis-infused drinks and snacks are displayed at a dispensary in San Diego. Photo by Chris Stone

What’s in your cannabis?

That’s the question at the heart of the Senate Bill 1097. Introduced by sate Sen. Richard Pan, a pediatrician and former educator with UC Davis’ Children’s Hospital, the Cannabis Right to Know Act addresses the need to provide visible, evidence-based information to California consumers in the form of prominent health information labels on cannabis products.

Senator Pan’s legislation resonates with public opinion: 83% of Americans think that where cannabis is legal, labels should help them identify safe, lawful products. As it stands today, the cannabis industry’s retail footprint doesn’t align with the public’s desire for the information needed to shop wisely and responsibly for legal California cannabis.

The Cannabis Right to Know Act would resolve this discrepancy.

Since 2016, when Californians voted to legalize recreational cannabis, the industry has left an indelible economic imprint on communities extending from Sacramento to San Diego. Elected officials and business leaders point to the tax revenues generated by recreational cannabis sales as a benefit to financially strapped municipalities.

But elected and unelected decision makers do not readily acknowledge or translate into common-sense public policies the cannabis industry’s negative impacts on public health and quality of life. The absence of health-information labels on cannabis products, sold in California, is a case in point.

There were approximately 6.7 million cannabis users lived in California in 2020, the most in the United States. Think of those consumers shopping for cannabis — an addictive, psychoactive product — without access to clear and visible product safety information.

Now, consider the exposure of those 6.7 million consumers – and the untold number of cannabis-curious Californians – to Big Cannabis’ battery of attention-grabbing advertisements, such as eye-catching billboards, slick magazine advertisements and provocative digital ads. Think of the consumers, on the receiving end of this advertising onslaught, absorbing the industry’s alluring product-pushing messages without the benefit of counterbalancing them with health warnings about safer-use information.

Welcome to California’s cannabis marketplace in 2022.

In this regulatory vacuum, California cannabis consumers are not equating the hip, breezy, wellness-forward ads fronting California’s $4.4 billion recreational cannabis industry with the documented harms associated with the product’s regular use.

 It’s unlikely a National Academies of Science study linking cannabis use to motor vehicle crashes, psychosis and schizophrenia, low birth weight, and worsening lung disease is top of mind when they’re shopping for cannabis weed and edibles.

Likewise, cannabis shoppers probably haven’t heard of a National Institutes of Health research study that found cannabis users, even those without major depression, were more likely to report suicidal thoughts.

It’s safe to assume that the 56% increase in California emergency room visits and admissions attributed to primary cannabis use between 2016 and 2019 hasn’t crossed their minds either. Shouldn’t these unsuspecting consumers understand the common risk factor linking documented life-threatening medical emergencies — including pediatric poisoning, cannabis-induced psychosis, self-harm, drugged driving, cardiovascular complications, adverse interactions with medications, and severe vomiting — to smoking, vaping or ingesting cannabis products?

As California’s cannabis industry matures and expands, the need to provide consumers with visible, accurate, and comprehensive health information grows more urgent. This is where the Cannabis Right to Know Act steps in:

Sen. Pan’s bill would promote the safe and responsible use of cannabis products by:

  • Encouraging legal — rather than illicit — cannabis purchases through the placement of rotating “Why Buy Legal” health warning messages on products and advertisements.
  • Clearly communicating key warning messages about mental health, edible absorption, use during pregnancy, impaired driving, and other clearly established risks. Warning messages would be developed in consultation with the California Department of Public Health and the University of San Francisco’s Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education.
  • Requiring bright yellow warning labels, in large type, to cover at least one-third of the front or principal face of a product, and include a pictorial or graphic element, as specified, and one of a series of rotating warnings. Print and digital advertisements would be required to follow the same format and cover at least 15% of the face of the advertisement.
  • Creating a single-page brochure that would communicate steps for safer use of cannabis and the set of health warnings required for the labels. Retailers and delivery services would be required to provide the brochure to each new consumer at the time of first purchase or delivery and to have the brochures visibly available at the point of service.

Product labeling will empower Californians to shop responsibly for recreational cannabis without the imposition of additional costs on government or consumers. SB 1097 simply would add product labeling to the existing checklist of requirements that the Department of Cannabis Control already enforces for packaging, labeling, and advertising. The legislation would complement DCC-funded public education campaigns promoting the legal cannabis market.

Cannabis health information labels are a pillar of a 21st century marketplace that values consumer safety, product integrity and industry transparency. If our state elected representatives are serious about safeguarding public health and safety and rooting out the corrosive impacts of the cannabis black market, they should not hesitate to pass the Cannabis Right to Know Act.

Kevin O’Neill is vice president of community engagement for SAY San Diego and Jim Keddy is executive director of Youth Forward. The two organizations advocate for public policies and civic partnerships that build healthy, equitable, and resilient communities.