How to get and understand legal weed labels: a consumer guide

Under Illinois law, consumers have the right to obtain a certificate of analysis, or “COA,” for any cannabis product for sale at a dispensary. Here’s what you need to know.

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Certificates of analysis, or COAs, provide “the nutritional facts” of what’s in legal marijuana products sold in Illinois and should be available on request.

Certificates of analysis, or COAs, provide “the nutritional facts” of what’s in legal marijuana products sold in Illinois and should be available on request.

There’s an important tool available to Illinois consumers of legal recreational marijuana — if you know how to get it and understand what it means.

Under Illinois law, consumers have the right to obtain a certificate of analysis, or “COA,” for any cannabis product for sale at a dispensary.

COAs are similar to food labels. But they provide even more information. They explain where the weed was grown, when it was tested, how potent it is and how it fared in tests for mold and yeast, bacteria, heavy metals and pesticides.

The documents also provide information on aromatic compounds called terpenes.

And some offer taste profiles, noting, say, whether a weed product tastes like pine, hops or orange.

But many consumers don’t know they have the right to see COAs.

And many dispensary workers also seem not to know.

Chicago Sun-Times reporters shopping for weed at eight dispensaries in Chicago and the suburbs asked for but had a difficult time obtaining COAs. None of the stores had the paperwork on hand, as Illinois law requires.

And only one — Verano Holdings’ Zen Leaf store in Greektown — made good on its promise to email the COA, doing so within a few hours.

How to read a certificate of analysis for legal recreational marijuana in Illinois.

How to read a certificate of analysis for legal recreational marijuana in Illinois.

Brian Ernst / Sun-Times

Margo Vesely, executive director of the Illinois chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, has been conducting her own tests over the nearly two years since recreational marijuana was legalized in Illinois of whether retailers turn over COAs. She says she’s had similarly poor results.

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What’s in Illinois’ legal weed?


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Sun-Times reporters Stephanie Zimmermann and Tom Schuba drop off samples for testing. Each was placed in a sterile bag and identified with a number and letter.

Brian Ernst / Sun-Times



Vesely says dispensary employees often are unaware COAs even exist and rarely can hand them over on request.

She says that, in April, a manager at a Sunnyside dispensary in Rockford at first told her the documents weren’t “public knowledge” before promising to provide them. But it took two more visits to the store before employees gave them to Vesely.

Reporters shopping at Dispensary 33 in the West Loop waited an hour to try to get a COA, only to leave empty-handed.

“It is the nutritional facts of our product,” Vesely says. “It is definitely needed.”

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Chris Rohde prepares a blunt at his home in Waukegan.

Anthony Vazquez / Sun-Times file

Legal weed WE WANT TO HEAR FROM YOU box

WE WANT TO HEAR FROM YOU


Are you a cannabis user or industry worker with a story tip about Illinois weed? Email cannabis reporter Tom Schuba at tschuba@suntimes.com or consumer watchdog reporter Stephanie Zimmermann at szimmermann@suntimes.com.


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