Unlike literally everything else in the UK right now, the black market for cannabis is actually doing pretty well. The British weed trade is conservatively estimated to be worth around £2.6 billion a year - even as the government flirts with the idea of promoting cannabis to a class A substance, which would put it on an equal footing with cocaine and heroin.
To put the industry’s clout into perspective, that’s £900 million more than the entire UK fishing industry and is about the same as the entire GDP of the South Pacific nation of East Timor. It’s also £600 million pounds more than the savings from the government’s latest 45p tax U-turn.
Until recently, buying weed in the UK hadn’t changed much since it first became a thing. Social media has made buying weed even easier and more convenient; vacuum-sealed express postage has replaced the anxious waits for dealers and flashy designer packaging has replaced the plastic baggies decorated with Bob Marley’s face, the marginally less imaginative ganja leaves or the bafflingly popular Uzi submachine gun. This transformation has had a knock-on effect to the whole industry and there are now plenty of legal ways to profit from Britain’s love for bud.
“The market’s changed a lot and for the better. People care about what they’re smoking now, so sellers have to care about what they’re selling,” says Jack Chapman, founder of Nottingham-based custom cannabis packaging company DC Packaging (AKA Dank Canz).
Chapman doesn’t ask questions of his customers - but you don’t need to be a teetotal detective to work out who would be in the market for custom designer cannabis packaging. “Weed’s got a lot better,” he reflects. “There’s a lot more of it and more and more people want to use it and the packaging reflects that because brands have to stand out and the product always needs to look better than the last thing.”
“Packaging itself has come a long way thanks to America, where legalisation has obviously changed things,” Chapman adds. “Like everything, [weed packaging] goes through trends. We started with sealed tins where you got the novelty of pulling open a tin of weed but they went out of fashion because the metal wasn’t food safe and you couldn't see what you were buying. Then it was jars - they were safe but too bulky and now it’s mylar bags.”
If they weren’t selling cannabis accessories, Dank Canz would be the kind of business that would give Tories the hots. Chapman started the business with just £200, back in 2017. He bought a home printer and some hand cut labels and got busy on Photoshop. Five years later, he employs three people, runs the business out of its own facility and designs, prints and ships thousands of labels every week along with other customised paraphernalia like rolling papers, lighters and even biodegradable grinders for the environmentally conscious stoner.
“This probably isn’t even one percent of what we’ve done,” Chapman tells me as we look at a wall in the office of his factory plastered with designer mylar bags. He shows me around and talks me through some of what’s on show. At one point he takes me to a range of bags decorated with a likeness of Transport for London’s iconic logo. The largest one is about the size of a loaf of bread. When I ask him what this monster is for, he smiles and says: “A whole lot of weed.”
“This [was made for] one of the bigger brands we’ve worked with. They’re famous for having train ticket-style stickers with the strain’s name on - which obviously ties in with their whole transport theme, it gets people talking and gets you noticed on Instagram.”
More evidence of this social-media savvy approach to branding is on display around the room. As well as the regular passport-sized mylar bags, there are plenty of custom shapes - Chapman tells me this is the latest trend in cannabis packaging. Most are in the shape of various cartoon figures - because mascots are fun - but there are others in the form of Royal Mail post boxes, Nokia 3310s and even a full-sized champagne flute.
“It’s all about getting noticed on Instagram where there’s a big cannabis community,” Chapman explains. “We rely on social media for probably 80 percent of our customers, so we like it when people come to us with these creative designs.”
“Instagram can be a problem for us as well, though. We’ve never had any trouble with the law because we obviously just make packaging and whatever it ends up containing is none of our business, but Instagram don’t like anything to do with weed and we’ve lost about ten accounts. Every time this happens the business loses its main point of contact and we have to rely on our customers and the cannabis community to get back on track.”
Despite being completely legal, designer cannabis packaging companies have not escaped criticism. In 2021, the Daily Mail ran an article that criticised Dank Canz and Chapman personally for making packaging similar to sweet and cereal brands that are popular with children. Chapman ignored requests for comment at the time, but now believes that the point made was valid.
“They did highlight a problem and I don’t think that any of this should be appealing to children,” he says. “We know legalisation isn’t on the agenda right now, but if that conversation is ever going to happen then cannabis needs to be treated as an adult product similar to tobacco or alcohol.”
Whilst effective social media branding is a great way of attracting customers, any influencer getting paid to promote nondescript protein supplements will testify that this doesn’t always guarantee quality. Marijuana is no different.
“The idea that well designed packaging means good weed is extremely misleading,” says James, a 27-year-old smoker from London. His name has been withheld to protect his identity as a canna-seur. “I think maybe 90 percent of the time people aren’t getting what's on the label. People can heat-seal mylar bags closed to make it look like they’re imported, but the reality is that it’s easy to buy generic bags online and bump people off.”
“But the designs are all about recognition and giving the brand some character - when I get a nice strain and they’ve worked hard on a nicely designed label, I do tend to follow them on Insta so it does serve a purpose.”
Whilst fancy packaging is a relatively new trend, it has come to the fore with the backdrop of ever stronger cannabis strains being found in both the UK and the wider world, which have tangible links to certain potential health issues.
“Higher THC varieties have proliferated over the past 10-20 years,” says Professor Valerie Curran, who specialises in psychopharmacology and is the UCL emeritus professor of cinical, educational and health psychology. “Whereas four to six percent THC was common 20-odd years ago, now 15 percent and above are most common - with more than 20 percent seen increasingly often. Alongside higher THC, other important cannabinoids - especially CBD - which may protect against some harms of THC - have significantly decreased.”
“High THC and frequent use is associated with increased risk of addiction - which is a problem affecting at least nine percent of users and 20 percent or more of daily cannabis users,” she adds. “A much less frequent, but very serious, problem is psychosis - which is more pronounced in those who are vulnerable for genetic reasons.”
Whilst the risks of cannabis use are well publicised, this hasn’t stopped a gradual rise in the amount of British people admitting to having used cannabis - with as many as two million using the drug at least once a month. With a complicated but increasingly profitable and expanding medical cannabis industry also plugging away in the background - it seems like those involved on the other side of the industry will be keeping businesses like Dank Canz busy for a while.