By NCIA’s Cannabis Manufacturing Committee
The language of the cannabis industry is crude. It’s not that the cannabis industry relies on vulgar or offensive words, but rather that modern cannabis vernacular remains raw, unrefined, incomplete, and sometimes contradictory, even in mature markets. Perhaps most generously described as “imprecise” or “fluid,” the current lexicon is changing as quickly as the industry, but not always for the better. Consistent and universal terminology are hallmarks of strong industries. As the cannabis industry (including both high-THC “marijuana” and low-THC “hemp”) continues to grow and prove its legitimacy, it is critical that everyone is speaking the same vocabulary.
Defining the issue
Out of necessity, the language of the cannabis industry took root in the dark. Decades of prohibition followed by state-led regulation has resulted in a fractured vocabulary where terms-of-commerce have fuzzy boundaries. The current landscape of murky terminology can inject ambiguity into everyday transactions and, in the worst of circumstances, mislead consumers. As some industry terms coalesce in particular regions, for example, other terms take on different meanings around the country. It is not a problem unique to the cannabis industry, but with its regulatory history, rapid product advancements, and diverse consumer base, the NCIA’s Cannabis Manufacturing Committee (“CMC”) felt it time to start a conversation about the words that define the industry.
With legalization comes a mass-consumer base and new forums to joust for consumer attention. Retail shelves, product packaging, and commercial advertising are the new arenas where cannabis companies try to describe their product to consumers and differentiate their brands from others. Out of this scrum comes a new marketing jargon that can be difficult to decipher. Shatter, crumble, butter, wax, sauce, diamonds, distillate, isolate, broad-spectrum, full-spectrum, partial-spectrum… and that is just in one section of the dispensary. Indeed, a huge swath of cannabis consumers fall into the infrequent or casual consumer demographics for which these terms mean next to nothing.
What’s the problem?
This linguistic haze is felt acutely in the manufacturing link of the supply chain. Manufacturing is the relatively nascent segment of the industry that converts raw cannabis plants into various medical, adult-use, and industrial products. In just the past two decades, new technologies have produced a glut of new products, each of which needs to be called something. But those new terms have ambiguous definitions that are easy vehicles for confusion. And where confusion is prevalent, both consumers and companies suffer.
For many cannabis customers, trying to decode a dispensary menu is like reading in an alien language. They frequently must rely on budtenders and marketing materials to understand some products’ basic characteristics. And even if they manage to become fluent in one dispensary’s menu, they may still find it difficult to predict how that menu will translate to other retailers across the country. The lack of vocabulary standardization would be untenable in the food or beverage industries. In the cannabis industry, where patients may rely on specific products for medical treatment, consumers should have a uniform vocabulary to describe products.
That challenge is not limited to retail consumers. Language is critical to the smooth functioning of intra-industry business relationships. As in any other industry, cannabis business relationships are far more successful when the parties’ expectations are aligned. When a dispensary orders tens of thousands of dollars in shatter, crumble, distillate, and tincture, they have certain expectations about the products they will receive. Even experienced extractors, operators, and executives have different understandings of where some products end and others begin.
Ambiguity in the commercial arena can lead to big problems. Among the best-case scenarios, a miscommunication results in a dissatisfied customer. More serious disagreements may require costly replacement shipments or refused deliveries. Of course, if the stakes are high enough and both parties are adamant in their positions, a linguistic quarrel may become a courtroom duel. Some advertising litigation, such as for “Refined Live Resin” vape cartridges, is already working its way through the court system. When it comes to cannabis terminology, fuzzy boundaries are not a standard the industry should embrace. But leaving cannabis industry terminology to the mercy of courts and regulators also holds little appeal.
…the CMC set out to create a working glossary. The goal of this document is to get the industry on the same page with published terminology standards as best understood by the NCIA’s Cannabis Manufacturing Committee. These standards are intended to facilitate commerce within the cannabis industry by increasing consistency and decreasing confusion.
The CMC developed a list of the most common terms that are currently utilized in the manufacturing segment. While the committee included some broad terms applicable to the industry at large, the focus was on those terms that most directly relate to cannabis extraction and refinement. From that list of industry terms, the committee drafted definitions that attempt to capture how those terms are currently being used throughout the legal cannabis industries. The CMC then shared those draft definitions with as many practitioners as it could to get a broad selection of perspectives. Wherever possible, the CMC sought to be inclusive of regional variations and note instances where terms are exceptions to a generally understood meaning. But the CMC understands that neither this process nor any other is guaranteed to represent all corners of an increasingly complex industry.
The document is not meant to be the ultimate word on cannabis terminology, but rather a snapshot in time and the starting page for a discussion about what the words of the cannabis industry should mean. Importantly, these definitions are the CMC’s attempt to capture how the terms are currently used, not how they should be used. Indeed, there are several well-qualified bodies debating the future of cannabis nomenclature, including ASTM’s D37 committee and the Emerald Conference.
Along with publication of this glossary, the NCIA’s Cannabis Manufacturing Committee is inviting comments from the entire cannabis community. Your constructive comments are a crucial part of forming the vocabulary of an industry. The CMC’s intent is to revisit these definitions approximately every calendar quarter, adding, revising, and annotating as new terms are invented and meanings inevitably shift.
So, without further ado…
Paul Coble is the founder and CEO of Thalo Technologies, a veteran intellectual property attorney, Vice-chair of the NCIA’s Cannabis Manufacturing Committee, and Chair of the Nomenclature Subcommittee.
The CMC focuses on reviewing existing business practices and state regulations of concentrates, topicals, vaporizers, and edibles, ensuring the manufacturing sector is helping shape its destiny.