After a recent trip to her local dispensary, my mom recalled how, when she was young, black-market cannabis was really only available by the “lid”—usually, a sandwich bag partly filled with ground-up plant, the official size of which tended to vary. Today, she can choose rich, cleverly named buds by the gram or quarter ounce from hundreds of California locations; they come tucked into dark plastic pop-top vials, or windowed envelopes lined with golden, scent-blocking mylar, or—increasingly, as mainstream tastes and funds flow in—are served up as a prerolled botanic experience for a few dollars more.
Across the state, cannabis businesses are struggling to make sense of new options for packaging their products, as well a shifting set of rules for making them legally compliant. As a result, manufacturers and retailers face rising costs that can easily snuff out small operators, and a trend of increasingly stylized marketing that often seeks to leave the cannabis industry’s history of conflict and culture behind.
According to those who have watched and helped grow the industry since its grey- and black-market days, regulators’ current trajectory may make buying and selling cannabis even harder for many. At the same time, innovations inspired by legal weed could soon change pharmacy as we know it.
New laws, new look: A millennia-old drug gets a makeover
After close to a century of U.S. cannabis prohibition, and decades of continuing, racially biased arrests and incarceration, legal cannabis businesses are working overtime to combat stigma around the drug, which remains federally illegal and excluded from most mainstream medicine.
Even as many cannabis growers, distributors, and consumers from the previous black-market industry continue serving jail and prison sentences around the country, new investors in legal markets are trying to tip the scales of cannabis perception directly from ‘criminal’ to ‘healthful,’ or even ‘couture.’
At the same time, as cannabis attorney Hilary Bricken, who co-writes the website Canna Law Blog, said in a phone interview, businesses are under increasing pressure to build brand recognition and loyalty in a veritable sea of green products. As the industry moves toward standardization, she said, businesses are trying out ways to promote their products within a competitive—and sometimes overwhelming—new legal marketplace.
“Packaging is one area that is becoming increasingly sophisticated and stylized, from branded [infused beverage] bottles and tins to really put-together boxes,” Bricken said. “It’s a narrow way for brands to distinguish themselves—and one way they can try to beat the black market and end prohibition.”
As the legal industry struggles to keep ahead of the black market, companies in California and other states are trying a somewhat psychological approach, Bricken said. “The idea is, why would you buy a gram on the corner when you could buy something that looks like it’s from Whole Foods?”
To that end, seemingly, many large operators have started taking similar aesthetic cues in how they package their buds and pre-rolls. In a direct rejection of the “lids” and Playboy bunny- or smiley face-stamped dime bags that ruled weed until just a few years ago, packaging now tends to feature handwriting-style text and abstract, herbal designs in an assortment of soothing colors.
This spring, Packaging Digest reported that the top five trends in cannabis packaging are “Leafy imagery; Green in color and in ethos; A focus on health; Minimalism; Playing with stereotypes.” AdWeek also reflected recently that the best cannabis brands are “creating marketing history while simultaneously changing public opinion with their perfectly packaged creations … [and] raising the bar at the intersection of wellness, compliance and luxury branding.”
Canndescent, for example, wraps its cannabis flower and pre-rolled joints “in an entirely new way, throwing traditional slang-sounding strain names to the wind and instead using their packaging to tell a story about how the product will make the user feel or painting a picture of the type of occasion that strain might best accompany.”
The firm also reportedly put together “collectible single-strain gift sets complete with branded matches and rolling papers [into] cross body bags inspired by designers such as Coach and Hermes,” and distributed them last year to “exclusive” party guests during California’s Coachella music festival.
Other design choices in the current market are somewhat simpler, if also plying ‘chill’ themes. According to packaging manufacturer StandupPouches.com, for example, rapper, entrepreneur, and renowned weed supporter Snoop Dogg chose to bedeck his signature Leafs By Snoop line with “California-inspired imagery, pastels, and gold colors that are inspired by T-shirts he would wear poolside or at the beach.”
As money has poured into the legal industry, totally new forms of cannabis packaging have also been springing up. From child-resistant jars to reusable cans, a wave of updated containers has swept legal weed recently, tapping areas of design that pharmaceutical and over-the-counter (OTC) drugmakers have mostly ignored.
There are increasingly slick, customizable bottles and boxes, prerolled-joint vials, quaint jars, and all number of cartridges for vape-pen users. Because child resistance has been a key area of most states’ packaging regulations, there are also patent-ed (or -pending) tins and tubes, and sturdy ‘exit bags’ with proprietary zip/pull/stand-up features.
Some manufacturers have also been exploring greener alternatives to popular mylar and plastic containers. HISIERRA co-founder Mike Greenfield, who chose to enter cannabis packaging after 30 years in more mainstream bag-making (his claim to fame: the Subway sandwich carrier bag), said he decided to look beyond plastic cannabis ‘barrier bags’ after clients complained that there were no available products with both high performance and a low eco-footprint.
A couple years later, the company is now producing exit bags almost entirely composed of a plastic that’s derived from sugarcane, a “renewable, sustainable material,” Greenfield said. Unlike with most normal plastic manufacturing, with is usually a “filthy” process, he explained, the company’s Texas manufacturing plant has nixed the smokestack, turns out cleaner air and water than goes in, and relies entirely on nearby wind power.
California’s green rush grows up
Last year, Californians voted to legalize adult recreational cannabis use and sales starting January 1, 2018, requiring a range of brand-new regulations. After more than 20 years’ experience under medicinal cannabis laws, operators have had to re-calibrate everything from labels to processing to accommodate the new rules—three sets of them since California went rec.
State lawmakers officially began tackling comprehensive recreational cannabis legislation back in 2017. But between the industry’s many different needs, cash-fueled interests, and the usual political sticky gears, they only delivered their long-term proposal in July. In the meantime, the entire legal cannabis supply chain has had to adopt a set of temporary rules known as “Emergency Regulations,” which saw significant changes halfway through the year.
Some rules appear in all three versions, but others have forced operators to quickly change directions, or even sent them in circles.
For example, for the first six months of 2018, California retailers needed to ensure that all departing customers had their cannabis products contained in child-resistant ‘exit bags.’ These are reusable plastic and/or mylar bags, available in stores and online for around $1 a pop, which allow its contents to be protected, more or less, from the wandering eyes and hands of kids.
Because there’s a limited number of bag-makers out there, and only so many ways (mostly patented) that bags can be both child-proof and resealable, they have also raised costs for businesses and consumers, and added to some groups’ concerns about the huge amount of plastic being used in the industry.
Starting July 1, however, exit bags were no longer to be included in California’s temporary regulations for packaging weed. Instead, the state said it would require cannabis products to be packaged and labelled only by licensed manufacturers and distributors, taking the whole process—including the task of weighing out fresh flower—out of the hands of retail-only businesses.
And then, about two weeks later, California released a set of proposed permanent rules requiring products to be both made individually child-proof by manufacturers or distributors and contained in child-proof bags when customers are exiting stores. Meanwhile, businesses have also had to adjust to new requirements for lab testing, portion size, and other key factors in the cannabis production process—making compliant packaging just one of many issues operators have to keep track of.
“I think operators are very annoyed by it,” said cannabis attorney Hilary Bricken. “After having no oversight in this area for 20 years, they now have to comply with very specific packaging requirements, and if you get it wrong, there are severe penalties for violating those rules.”
Numerous cannabis industry members said they had planned to continue stocking and using exit bags despite the (ultimately brief) rule change, since they expected things to evolve. Overall, they said, being forced to stay ahead of potential future regulations is simply too costly for most, and—when businesses can afford it—may jam up the already understaffed, shortage-prone supply chain.
Jamie Warm, CEO of Henry’s Original, said new packaging rules are “changing the face of the whole industry,” where retailers have traditionally made their own packaging, prerolls, and other products. “Essentially we’re seeing an enormous amount of regulations that are creating more barriers to entry into the market, and forcing brands to consolidate. There are positive and negative sides to that.”
“Without any enforcement, companies striving to be compliant are at risk of going out of business because they’re competing against companies not playing by the same set of rules,” Warm said.
“But compliance is difficult, and adds a lot of cost, material, and labor,” he continued. “It’s hard to get into the business right now unless you’re extraordinarily well-capitalized; unfortunately, we’re seeing smaller retailers and producers fall by the wayside.”
Weed invites Big Pharma to the 21st century
According to some experts, the tradition of medicinal containers in general is long overdue for an update, and cannabis innovators could offer the solution—or at least help smoke it out.
Dr. Laura Bix, a professor at Michigan State University’s School of Packaging and an adjunct associate at Clemson University, explained by phone that years of research around medical packaging and containers have taught her that the pharmaceutical industry is slow to change its formats. It’s also drowning in those push-and-turn “amber vials” that have ruled pharmacies since she was a kid in the 1970s, and which many of the most common weed containers are based on.
Bix, who previously investigated the “senior-friendly” package tests required for pill bottles, said that she and her team have been examining the “paradox and paradigm” of child-resistant packaging (CRP) to find ways of improving current methods. “You’ve got these increasingly adept toddlers who are reading earlier, and are wired to explore the world and try different things. At the older end of the spectrum, we’re increasingly moving people into home care, and away from acute or ambulatory care,” she commented.
“As a result, we increasingly have very sophisticated drugs and devices in home environments, where children may be present; it’s a very difficult paradox that designers have to deal with and accommodate, and we’ve tried to look at how we can separate the increasingly frail older group, who’s engaged in polypharmacy, from the younger end of the spectrum according to ability.”
Like the push-and-turn pill bottles we’re all familiar with, Bix noted, most CRP relies on “tripping kids up” at a later stage in the mental process—typically, when they have already absorbed a bottle’s instructions and comprehended its meaning, and are at last trying to push and turn simultaneously. These kinds of tasks are tricky when using toddler-level strength, motor skills, and coordination, but not impossible, and can pose issues for senior patients, Bix said.
So after ruling out other potentially useful variables between the two age groups, Bix and her colleagues are now testing a totally new and pretty darn funny strategy for protecting curious kids: distract them. Bix commented, “We know young children are perceptual processors, not cognitive ones, so we thought, what if we try a distraction?” And they did just that.
With support from researcher Rita Chen and others, Bix’s team conducted a study in 2014 called “The Red Herring Project” to see whether a lenticular image placed on the bottom of a package would help keep toddlers busy, and out of its contents. They found that kids took three times as long to get into packaging when the non-functioning end had a tantalizing lenticular, thereby adding another layer of protection.
Currently Bix and her team are working on revising their study for publication, and conducting a follow-up study to explore whether such images become “an attractive nuisance,” drawing kids to bottles or boxes they’d otherwise ignore.
Overall, she said, “The big takeaway from both studies is there’s a lot of room for new thinking in CRP, particularly in the US, where we’re married to the amber vial and cap—the rest of the world doesn’t take that approach, and as we’ve invested so much infrastructure in that shape, it’s in many ways become a sacred cow.”
Bix added that she’s been excited to see new packaging ideas coming out of the cannabis industry, too, and hopes such innovation will also catch on in pharmacy. “It’s interesting that cannabis comes in so many formulations and delivery mechanisms, and it strikes me as maybe a more creative industry. We may see some innovations on that side [of medicinal packaging] that end up on the other side as well.”
As packaging pushes weed forward, roots may be left behind
According to those on the front lines, California regulators haven’t actually started enforcing the state’s temporary regulations too much yet (understandably, given their seemingly low numbers), but businesses say they’re bracing for it more now that July 1 has come and gone.
Amber Senter, an Oakland-based manufacturer and co-founder of Supernova Women, an organization that offers networking for women of color interested in entering the cannabis industry, commented by phone that she’s mostly heard of regulators issuing warnings so far, regarding products with more-than-allowable THC and the like.
However, she expects to see more action soon. Now that products are required to be laboratory tested and clearly labelled to that effect (among other info), Senter believes regulators are likely to target dispensaries, where they can quickly spot products that don’t measure up, and start issuing fines. And packaging is only one thing that’s on would-be compliant operators’ minds.
“The biggest problem right now from the manufacturing side right now is testing,” Senter said. Packaging and labeling “sucks,” and is expensive in its own right, but laboratory compliance tests—which cost roughly $1,000 per cannabis substance, rather than per product, and require large samples—are “putting a nail in people’s coffins,” Senter continued. Such costs are also the reason that her company’s signature pre-roll, which comes dipped in concentrate and dusted with keef, is no longer on offer.
And while lab testing itself remains California’s most expensive and bottlenecked requirement, Senter said, the issue of best practices for packaging is still vital, and far from settled.
For one thing, the amount of plastic materials required to keep businesses compliant has skyrocketed, forcing both eco-friendly and small businesses to reconsider their models.
Under the newest set of rules, businesses must sell only laboratory-tested products that are pre-measured, don’t exceed 1000mg total THC content (or 100mg, split into 10mg servings, if the product is edible), and were created no later than January 1, 2018.
Senter, who manufactures cannabis-infused popcorn, said that in order to be compliant she would now have to pre-package each 10mg serving of her product within the 100mg bags she sells. Instead, she’s pivoted to selling individual 10mg bags for now, rather than create the extra waste.
She also bought a “really expensive” full-color label maker, so she won’t have to order new labels every time the rules change about what info must be displayed.
“Hopefully, in time, regulations will catch up to the demand of what people actually want, and regulators will realize there is no huge public safety risk, because we’ve been doing this for a while,” Senter noted.
For another thing, the exact definition of CRP isn’t totally set in stone, either by California cannabis regulators or the market at large.
The California Department of Public Health does require cannabis packaging to meet standards outlined in the federal Poison Prevention Packaging Act, which already applies to pill bottles and other dangerous-substance containers. However, the actual testing occurs at contracted labs, which may differ slightly in their appraisals of certain product types.
Scott Martin, Vice President of Sales and Marketing for cannabis packaging distributor N2 Packaging Systems, commented by phone that his team spent the past 10 months observing testing for their two new, patent-pending products—one a reusable child-resistant beverage lid, and the other a nitrogen-sealed reusable and recyclable can inspired by a way of preserving ammunition, with tomato-can-quality lining to preserve terpenes—through the course of some eye-opening methodology.
In order to test a container’s capacity for both child resistance and senior friendliness, as required by law, it must be given to a large number of young children and older adults (generally 50 of the former and 100 of the latter, each with equal gender dispersal) who are instructed to open them. In kids’ case, Martin said, they have five minutes to do anything they want to get it open, including using their teeth. If they fail, they are then given instructions on how to open it, and five more minutes to attempt this.
After seeing this testing first-hand, Martin said, “I am very surprised that some of the containers out there with pop lids are considered child-resistant, and have a hard time understanding how the kids who destroyed our lids wouldn’t be able to get through that.” He continued, “If we’re serious about restricting children from getting into certain things, glass should be eliminated from the venue, too—even most shatter-resistant glass will smash if you drop it.”
Overall, Martin said, “The packaging in our industry is extremely poor. I think plastic cans are a terrible idea, and metal cans are the most recycled item on the planet, which is why we continue to look outside medicine for other options like that—and in this industry, looking at more environmentally friendly packaging is a priority.”
George Sang, a Chicago-based trial attorney and CEO of Compliant Packaging, believes that significantly more stringent rules for cannabis processing and CRP are likely to be imposed down the road, anyway, assuming the U.S. gets with the program.
“It’ll be a different ball game in the future, especially with automation coming around the corner, because the labor cost of packaging these products for cultivators is expensive,” Sang said. In some ways, weed manufacturing and processing regulations may even start to mirror those of food production, and other closely supervised fields.
“When and if it becomes federally permissible to produce cannabis, workers will probably have to be washed down before they go into a grove, and checked for metals in the production line,” he said. As far as packaging goes, Sang commented that federal legalization will certainly bring in new standards that are “much more pharmaceutical,” too.
For their part, cannabis operators are aware that numerous changes to how products are made and sold are almost inevitable in years to come, in individual states and across the country.
Cesar Muro, Project Coordinator for the packaging distributor MarijuanaPackaging.com, and Brittny Peloquin, Marketing Manager for the company, commented by phone that they’ve heard lots of concerns from clients about how sudden rule changes could uproot their business plans, including their very careful packaging investments.
“The manufacturing process for bags or products can take 90 days,” Muro said. “Everyone wants to brand their products, and let people know theirs is the best. That’s hard to do when you’re using blank bags because you don’t know what regulations will be in 90 days, or a month.”
Peloquin also commented, “Dispensary owners are some of the most well-informed people I’ve ever worked with. They’re so good at staying on top of these things while they basically have a target on their backs, they’re pioneers, and they’re there to make a living.”
For now, they’ll probably have to keep planning ahead in several directions, and stocking up on plastic bottles and vials indefinitely, too. And maybe—if personal preference and state regulations permit—finding time away from the ‘green rush’ to recoup with some Cali gold.
Janet Burns is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn.