In this third installation of VICE Canada and MERRY JANE’s cross-border weed trend series via Sticky, we look at issues around packaging for legal product.
Canada has proceeded with an abundance of caution when it comes to legalizing cannabis—and that approach is clear in its packaging regulations.
The government’s primary goal, it seems, is to avoid making weed accessible/appealing to young people. As such, the packaging requirements for cannabis are even stricter than the rules for alcohol, despite the fact that alcohol is more harmful.
Designed to thwart children
Cannabis packaging has to be child-resistant, tamper-evident, and plain—a solid uniform colour, with the the red THC symbol and yellow health warning displayed, as well as the THC/CBD content, weight, packaging date, and number of units or doses.
The packages also have to be opaque so you can’t see what’s inside.
Packaging can’t be appealing to young people, nor can it contain a testimonial or endorsement. It can’t depict a person, character, or animal. And it can’t associate with with a “way of life” that includes “glamour, recreation, excitement, vitality, risk or daring.”
So what can legal producers do to dress up their packaging? Well they can include the name of the producer and one “brand element” like a logo. Fun.
The requirements, some of which overlap with the restrictions on advertising, are so strict that even the New Brunswick government broke them when it launched its cannabis website.
Cannabis New Brunswick’s site featured photos of people doing yoga and hanging out. It also implied that weed can be used during a “weekly poker game, girls' night out, or a concert with the whole group."
The province adjusted the website after Health Canada reportedly got in touch.
Many cannabis consumers, used to the tiny Ziplock bags they got their weed in pre-legalization, were taken aback at the amount of packaging that goes into legal weed.
One consumer told CBC a single gram of weed came with 70 grams of plastic, foil, and packaging. That’s because even a single gram has to be in a child-resistant package e.g. a bottle similar to what would be used for ibuprofen, and that bottle is often packaged in a box. If the cannabis is coming in the mail, there’s even more packaging.
But the government isn’t likely to ease up its packaging restrictions anytime soon, so for now the waste may just be collateral damage. In the meantime, businesses specializing in cannabis packaging have popped up as an adjacent industry.
Canada is expected to roll out edibles sales in 2019 and the draft regulations for how they will be regulated have already been released.
Health Canada’s proposed rules say edibles packaging must be plain and child resistant. They are also proposing a 10 mg THC limit per package of edibles—which will potentially amount to a single serving size per package. In Colorado and Washington State packages can contain multiple servings. Liquid extracts will be limited to 90 ml per package, while concentrated THC will be limited to a maximum 7.5 gram package.
Edibles will also have to carry the same THC symbol, health warnings, potency, and ingredients list. They cannot be appealing to children or contain health claims or “elements that would associate product with alcoholic beverages or brands of alcohol.”
Under the Cannabis Act, “it is prohibited to sell cannabis or a cannabis accessory that has an appearance, shape or other sensory attribute or a function that there are reasonable grounds to believe could be appealing to young persons.” It’s not clear how this will apply to edible candies, gummies, and chocolates.
Industry consultant Deepak Anand previously told VICE he thinks the marketing restrictions are making it difficult to compete with the black market.
“I get that it isn't ever going to be similar to what alcohol companies are permitted to do but there needs to be a happy medium between tobacco and alcohol,” he said.
The Weed Packaging Scene in the US
In the US, cannabis packaging regulations have always focused on one thing above all others: child safety.
Children sometimes get into their parents’ or guardians’ cannabis. Although regulations stipulate that every package must contain a printed label with a list of ingredients, THC content, and batch numbers, little kids don’t understand the labels. What they do understand is gummies, chocolates, and suckers can be eaten, putting every household at risk of sending junior to the ER.
Since legalization kicked off in 2014, hospitals in legal states reported consistent upticks of children coming in ill, panicked, or seemingly comatose from accidentally eating too many infused edibles. Granted, no children have died from cannabis, but this danger prompted several states to revise their edibles packaging regulations.
To keep kids out of mom and dad’s stash, the earliest rules slapped child-safety mechanisms on all cannabis packaging, not just edibles. Today, all packaging must be opaque, so the goods inside remain hidden from public view. Squeeze- or pop-bottles, which open by applying pressure to the container’s sides, must pass rigorous testing to ensure toddlers can’t pry them apart. Boxed chocolates require locking tabs that many adults have trouble opening.
In fact, child-proofing cannabis packaging is one of the few universal regulations between weed-legal states, even as individual states’ laws may wildly differ when it comes to other aspects of legalization, like possession limits, plant-count limits, or qualifying medical conditions.
Although the federal government doesn’t regulate pot packaging because it considers marijuana more illegal than cocaine, state regulators still follow federal guidelines for child-safety packaging. That’s easy, since most bottles meeting the federal criteria are mass produced then repurposed by cannabis brands.
The most affordable material for child-safety mechanisms is plastic, and plastic, unfortunately, poses a new problem for the industry.
More Plastic, More Problems
Most plastics don’t biodegrade, so they can stick around for thousands if not millions of years. Microplastics, which are microscopic plastic particles that have contaminated everything from shorelines to our own poop, may become an environmental disaster in the coming decades.
Practically every cannabis product comes in a plastic package, whether it’s a vape cartridge, liquid drops, wax, or just plain ol’ buds. Packaging cannabis, by its very nature, is wasteful, as containers can range from four to 30 times the weight of the products they contain. Sustainability shortcuts like buying in bulk isn’t an option, either. Family-sized value bags of pot-laden peanut butter cups don’t exist due to laws that restrict THC amounts in each package.
According to a joint report by BDS Analytics and Arcview Market Research, US companies sold $8.5 billion worth of cannabis products in 2018. With the average cannabis product priced at about $25, conservative estimations suggest hundreds of millions of units are sold and discarded each year. That’s a lot of plastic.
Last summer, the Washington Post reported that Washington state’s cannabis industry produced so much plastic waste it “clogs gutters, sewers and landfills.” In 2017, an opinion in the scientific journal Environmental Science and Technology urged US agencies to investigate the environmental impacts of state-legal cannabis. So where is the industry now?
“It’s a penny game,” said Rao Murukurthy, the principal at Denver Custom Packaging, a company that manufactures recyclable packaging for the cannabis industry.
“Everybody prefers to use baggies now, with a machine that makes something like a Frito Lays bag,” he said, “but it’s cheap, and it’s worked for the past seventy years.”
Murukurthy noted that the industry is a long way from being sustainable, but things are changing. “There is a big push,” he said, “where people are designing plastic jars and containers for cannabis, specifically to replace the old-school squeeze-top containers.”
Newer bioplastics incorporate hemp—the weed that doesn’t get anyone high—into petrol-sourced composites. Some of these hemp plastics are biodegradable. However, nothing can biodegrade inside the oxygen-starved confines of a landfill, and even biodegradable plastics can contribute to microplastic pollution.
The Cost of Saving a Planet
Based in California, Ben Wu works as a cannabis industry expert and consultant. He has advised state regulatory committees in Oregon and California regarding cannabis packaging, and he believes the industry recently reached a critical point where its market demand can spurn innovation. Innovation, however, requires a ton of time and money.
“The challenge to the industry is the lack of financial services,” said Wu. “In order to do research, in order to spend money on testing new technologies, you need capital.”
Currently, cannabis companies cannot access federally-insured banks for loans or credit, so all in-house R&D must come out-of-pocket. While a handful of cannabis companies scaled into multimillion-dollar enterprises, most struggle to break even. Additionally, because cannabis remains federally illegal, licensed cannabis operations cannot make tax deductions under the IRS rule 280E, effectively taxing them at a 100-percent rate. No other industry in the US faces these kinds of financial obstacles.
“A lot of operators are just trying to stay alive,” Wu said. “Assume a new, environmentally friendly bottle costs fifty cents, and the traditional bottle only costs fifteen cents. When you’re just trying to keep the lights on, which one are you going to go with?
“Ninety-nine percent of the time, they’re going to go with the traditional bottle.”
Follow Manisha Krishnan on Twitter.
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