Broader legalization of cannabis in selected states is creating buzz for product-appropriate packaging.
Holy smoke—get ready for the Green Rush. What is the Green Rush? "60 Minutes" reports, “Colorado has had a history of gold rushes and silver rushes, and some people have dubbed this the green rush, not just for the color of medical marijuana, but for the money that might eventually be made here if you are among the first to stake a claim.”
Americans hold various opinions about marijuana, with plenty of rhetoric supporting those in favor of legalization as well as those opposed. That said, one aspect of the issue can’t be spun: Legal cannabis, particularly for recreational consumption, presents a sizable economic opportunity for the packaging industry.
Purveyors of not only smokable cannabis but also infused edibles, beverages and topical products use many kinds of packaging products and services. They are buying pouches, jars, bottles, cartons, labels, shippers and even radio frequency identification (RFID) tags for inventory control—plus services like graphic design.
Two states, Colorado and Washington, legalized adult recreational-marijuana use via ballot measures in 2012, with the first retail (non-medical) sales occurring this year. Both states legalized medical marijuana a number of years ago. Colorado did so in 2000, and Washington in 1998. A total of 20 states, plus Washington, D.C., have legalized medical marijuana so far.
Some packaging suppliers are already benefitting from Colorado’s legalization of recreational marijuana. Among them is Los Angeles-based A&A Packaging, which sells pop-top bottles, jars, pouches, labels, child-resistant packaging and other supplies to conventional pharmacies and medical-marijuana dispensaries.
Brian Cohen, A&A Packaging’s president, says, “We’ve already done very well with the medical-marijuana industry, and with the opening of the legalization in Colorado…orders just sky-rocketed.”
Rules and regs
For those in the packaging industry, taking advantage of the so-called Green Rush will require careful study of relevant regulations and the ability to move quickly, as the young cannabis industry is fragmented and changeable.
Predictably, legal marijuana is shaping up to be a highly regulated business category, like alcohol and tobacco. But unlike those industries, marijuana is not legal at the federal level. Thus there are no federal regulations.
And even within states where medical cannabis is legal, the rules can vary widely among local jurisdictions. Colorado has been working to create an umbrella of state-wide regulations for its newly expanded cannabis industry, including rules for packaging and labeling.
“Colorado and Washington right now are trying to regulate this legalization,” Cohen says, adding that Washington state is “still working out the kinks, following Colorado’s lead.” Colorado’s first retail-marijuana shops opened on Jan. 1, 2014, and retail sales in Washington are expected to start this June.
In Colorado and elsewhere, cannabis labeling regulations typically focus on protecting public safety and clear communication of what is in the package.
In San Francisco, the city’s Department of Public Health and the County of San Francisco make the labeling rules for collectives that dispense medical cannabis.
Packaging and labels for products sold at The Green Cross, a nonprofit medical-marijuana collective in San Francisco, “include recommended dosage, warnings, quantity, name of medicine, expiration date, our contact information, etc.—similar to pharmaceutical prescriptions,” explains Holli Bert, community liaison for The Green Cross.
“For our bud labels, we are required to include our name and contact information,” Bert says. “We also include the following warning: ‘Be responsible. Please keep away from children and pets. Smoke from cannabis contains chemicals known to the State of California to cause cancer.’ … We choose to include the first part of the warning about keeping cannabis away from children and pets. The latter portion is required.”
Child safety is a pervasive concern wherever marijuana sales are regulated. For cannabis-infused edibles, San Francisco’s packaging rules include a “Keep Out of Reach of Children” warning, allergen warnings and opaque packaging materials that conceal the products from youngsters.
The Green Cross uses paperboard cartons and flexible pouches to conceal its edibles, and although the city and county don’t require opaque packaging for medical cannabis in bud form, “we do conceal it in white bags before it leaves our store,” Bert says.
In Colorado, child-resistant packaging is required for both recreational and medical marijuana.
An Industry-Wide Bulletin issued in February 2014 by the Marijuana Enforcement Division of the Colorado Department of Revenue clarified child-resistant requirements in that state, explaining that packaging must be “designed or constructed to be significantly difficult for children under five years of age to open and not difficult for normal adults to use properly as defined by 16 C.F.R. 1700.20 (1995) and ASTM classification standard D3475-13.”
Switching to opaque
Another of Colorado’s child-resistant packaging requirements is opacity. The packaging material must conceal the product until the package is opened.
To comply with this rule, Denver-based Dixie Elixirs & Edibles has changed over to opaque packaging for all its products. The company makes a diverse assortment of products infused with THC, the psychoactive ingredient in cannabis, and it sells both medical- and recreational-marijuana products.
Dixie’s offerings include beverages, chocolate bars, truffles, mints, bath salts, massage oil, tinctures, capsules and more.The company prepares and packages all its products in its Denver plant before shipping them to stores throughout Colorado.
For its flagship elixirs—THC-infused soda, that is—the company uses brushed aluminum bottles, an opaque upgrade from glass. Dixie’s chocolate items are packed in a bag-like foil package with matte finish, its mints in an aluminum tin and its medicinal capsules in discreet silver-tone bags.
Dixie’s package graphics play an important role in making the products attractive to adults but unappealing to children.
“We do have a very retail approach in terms of look and feel,” says Joe Hodas, Dixie Elixirs’ chief marketing officer. Hodas characterizes Dixie’s packaging as “adult, upscale, sophisticated”—and definitely not decorated with “animals and clowns.” Dixie worked with Denver design firm Grit to create the package graphics and structures.
Denver-based Julie & Kate Baked Goods currently is redesigning its packaging not only to meet Colorado’s new regulations but also to position its THC-infused edibles as high-end treats. Offerings include granola bars, granola, cannabutter and nut-and-seed confections. The company also is developing a cannabis-infused coconut oil.
Julie & Kate produced medical-marijuana products prior to the legalization of recreational marijuana in Colorado and is now adding retail items. The company is switching from transparent pouches and jars to opaque packaging for all products. On-pack photography will show consumers what the products look like.
The new packaging, like the old, will communicate the adult nature of the brand. A THC-infused product “should incorporate … a cannabis leaf or verbiage letting you know that it’s clearly something different,” says Julie Dooley, owner/baker at Julie & Kate Baked Goods.
“That’s something our company takes very seriously,” she adds. “We want parents to become experts at reading [and seeing] these kinds of things…and we’re aware that we’re the first ones that they’re seeing.”
As in the past, Julie & Kate’s new package design will “not [be] appealing to kids. The color scheme is not bright pinks or greens or yellow—[not] kid friendly and bright and something that they notice. This is more subdued tones, earth tones,” Dooley says. “That was done specifically to draw the more mature eye.”
She adds that the new packaging is “not real ‘pretty.’ It’s beautiful. It’s classic. It’s not kid-friendly. … [We’re] thinking along the lines of Ralph Lauren and Godiva. What is top shelf, and what does that look like?”
For medical cannabis, pre-filled, pre-labeled packages have become the norm for a growing number of dispensaries and collectives. In these organizations, marijuana weighing and packaging often is performed by dispensary employees rather than supply-chain partners.
“We package all our products in-house,” says Bert of The Green Cross collective. The organization, which has a storefront location and a delivery service, sells edibles, capsules, creams and lotions, as well as smokable cannabis in pre-packaged pouches and as pre-rolls (cigarettes).
“The Green Cross uses different types of packaging, depending on the products,” Bert explains. “The majority of our edible products are sold in sealed and resealable pouches. Our Cannabis Infused Coconut Capsules and Canna-caps, as well as all our hash and concentrates, are sold in small, plastic reclosable containers. All our cannabis is sold in resealable plastic bags and stored in airtight bags and/or containers until packaged for resale.”
Medical marijuana is legal in California, under the Compassionate Use Act of 1996. But to buy it, a state resident first needs to get a doctor’s recommendation; physicians cannot write prescriptions for marijuana, because the U.S. federal government classifies cannabis as a Schedule I controlled substance.The doctor’s recommendation enables the patient to acquire a voluntary Medical Marijuana Identification Card from the California Department of Public Health.
Tony Mrsich, a California Medical Marijuana Identification Card holder, says he appreciates the trend toward pre-weighed, pre-packaged cannabis—vs the older approach, in which store employees measured out the cannabis and filled each package for the patient at the time of purchase.
“I like the pre-packaging, as it means a minimum number of people have handled the bud,” he says, explaining that this provides health and safety benefits for the patient and minimum loss of THC-rich resin. “My only caveat is when there are no samples to view, smell and touch.”
Mrsich, the former manager of a medical-cannabis collective in San Francisco, instituted a pre-packaging procedure when he began managing the storefront operation. Prior to his arrival as manager, employees had measured out each package of cannabis, to order, as the patient waited. Mrsich shifted to pre-packaging to improve inventory control and stem pilferage.
“Pre-packing the bags makes it harder to steal. If it isn’t pre-packaged, it is not that hard to cheat a customer out of a little bit of marijuana. We’re talking about really small weights here—an eighth of an ounce, for example. So it doesn’t take a heck of a lot. It’s the old thumb on the scale,” he explains. “It’s a very easy product to steal. You want to make sure that whatever packaging you have, the product can be verified at every stop.”
Pre-packaging was part of Mrsich’s larger inventory-control system, which included weighing product upon delivery to the collective and at the beginning and end of each business day. His collective also had samples of the various strains available for patients to examine.
In Colorado, inventory tracking via RFID technology is mandatory for both medical and recreational marijuana. Franwell Inc. developed the state’s Marijuana Inventory Tracking Solution software and supplies participants in the supply chain with RFID tags that enable the state to track all cannabis from seed to sale. The system uses two types of passive, ultra-high frequency RFID tag: one type is attached to plants, and the other is attached to retail/dispensary packaging.
For the future
Going forward, activists in several states that currently allow medical marijuana are working for legalization of its recreational counterpart. Alaska, California, Maine, Massachusetts and Oregon, for example, may soon be following in the footsteps of Colorado and Washington.
Assuming retail cannabis does become legal in more states within the next few years, we can expect two things. First, the thicket of rules and regulations surrounding marijuana packaging will grow denser. And second, the fledgling cannabis industry will continue to roll out the green carpet for packaging suppliers, designers, advisors and consultants.
Kate Bertrand Connolly is a seasoned freelance writer based in the San Francisco area covering the packaging, food and technology markets. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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