Remove your continuum transfunctioner from your utility belt and travel back to the time of mass marijuana prohibition, maybe a nice decade ago. Can you hear Soulja Boy's “Turn My Swag On” playing as someone's ringtone? All right, you have arrived safely in 2007 — remember to buy a bunch of Bitcoin.
Now, picture the last bag of weed you scored. Did it come delivered in a plastic sandwich bag, or worse, the plastic wrap from a pack of cigarettes sealed shut with a lighter flame? Good, so you have a decent idea of how tremendously far cannabis packaging has come in the last few years.
By 2017, marijuana reform has washed away the stench of complete cannabis prohibition in over half of the United States. And as the masses realize the commercial potential of marijuana as a consumer packaged good, one component of capitalism that's been understandably absent from black-market cannabis is finally having its turn in the rotation: retail marketing strategy.
By the end of 2021, analysts estimate the legal cannabis market in America could be worth more than $31 billion, which represents a $10 billion increase from estimates as recent as January 2017.
So, what is all of that weed going to be packaged in before it reaches the delighted customers?
The answer is an ever-evolving lineup of technologically advanced container products that have been developed specifically for the cannabis industry and its mounting regulatory requirements that vary widely throughout the world.
Twenty-four U.S. states now have laws on the books that dictate the packaging guidelines for cannabis products. While each state has certain nuances in its packaging laws, the one constant throughout each piece of legislation is a requirement that marijuana products be sold in child-resistant containers.
In many states, cannabis products may not even use imagery or terminology that would be attractive to a child, which creates a hurdle for brands that produce medicated candy or strains with names such as Girl Scout Cookies, for example. Companies with bright, colorful packaging have been sent back to the drawing board in many cases to find a different way to attract new customers without breaking newly minted rules.
In California, where the retail marijuana market is set to kick-off Jan. 1, 2018, there are strict guidelines for the packaging of medical marijuana, yet recreational rules have yet to be set in stone. If the medical marijuana packaging guidelines are to give us any hints about how the retail laws will unfold, they would look something like this:
California's packaging laws for medical marijuana focus primarily on the labeling of the product, but many states dive into greater detail about the types of containers that must be used. For example, seven states — Alaska, Colorado, Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Mexico, and Oregon — specify cannabis packaging must be opaque so the contained product cannot be seen until the container is opened.
Because cannabis regulations are ever-evolving, many brands and producers are trying to stay steps ahead by utilizing new approaches to packaging that will most likely adhere to what the laws will eventually look like — an educated guess.
Pollen Gear, a New York-based packaging manufacturer run by award-winning designer Edward Kilduff, is combining beauty and functionality to bring consumers into a new age of cannabis containment. Kilduff came up with the idea for his new line of marijuana packaging after he discovered many people were using one of his previous inventions, the Evak coffee container, to store their cannabis.
“A lot of herb connoisseurs were buying it because air is really their enemy,” Kilduff told Willamette Week. “I started talking to people, and I realized that what they really wanted was something with a lower price that's child-resistant.”
“We're shooting for standards that are way above and beyond what is required right now,” he says. “We're trying to be the leaders.”
One of the fastest-growing methods of packaging marijuana is enclosing it in a small tuna-style can and replacing any oxygen in the container with nitrogen before sealing it shut. This method has been used in the food industry for quite a while, but cannabis companies such as West Coast Cure are now just starting to take advantage of its numerous benefits.
We explored the burgeoning nitrogen-sealed cannabis market in October 2017 and learned that, while the process is more expensive than traditional plastic pop-top containers or resealable bags, it allows a retailer or consumer to store the container for as long as they want without the product losing any freshness. For example, packaging like this would allow dispensaries to buy many strains and store what doesn't sell for later without risking the flower getting stale. Alternatively, a dispensary may just buy one or two popular strains from a brand in bulk, knowing the more obscure and niche strains may not sell as fast and ultimately be wasted. Beside keeping cannabis as fresh as the day it was trimmed, nitrogen-sealed cans also abide by the opaque and child-resistant container laws in various legalized cannabis markets.
One cannabis brand that's revolutionizing the marijuana packaging category is Canndescent, a Desert Hot Springs, California-based company that scrapped the traditional labeling and branding of marijuana's past for a simpler approach. It believed this cleaner look would be less intimidating to those who are new to the cannabis-buying experience and attractive enough to entice experienced connoisseurs. By removing the typical strain names and imagery in favor of proprietary experiential-based flower and easy-to-digest information on the packaging, the company hopes to grab an entirely new clientele-base that probably wasn't buying sandwich bags of weed in 2007. To make things even easier for consumers, each box comes complete with a child-resistant, reusable glass jar, as well as everything you'll need to light up including rolling papers, crutches, matches, and an organic hemp wick.
When Canndescent was featured on a special marijuana-themed episode of CNBC's “The Profit,” host Marcus Lemonis — an admitted cannabis novice — toured the company's facility and compared their design motif to that of other high-end retailers such as Whole Foods.
Canndescent isn't the only brand taking the sophisticated approach to the tired old pop tops lying around your house.
Craft cannabis company Supplied by 1964, whose name is a subtle nod to the year Raphael Mechoulam isolated the molecule THC in marijuana, is treating their strain lineup as limited-edition art pieces. The brand recruits world-renowned artists to visualize how a certain 1964-grown strain makes them feel and subsequently create accompanying art that is emblazoned on the packaging. Like seeing a film adaptation of a novel you've read, this beautiful imagery encourages you to feel the strain's impact with not just your taste buds and nose, but with your eyes as well.
One reason unique approaches to marketing by craft cannabis producers are proving quite successful right now is that, in the absence of large national packaging manufacturers getting involved due to strict federal prohibition on marijuana, smaller operations are able to innovate and produce new ideas without the fear of a conglomerate undercutting them quickly. Because almost all cannabis-related business must be conducted within state lines, brands are being pushed to focus on quality in isolated markets. This new focus on the aesthetic of a brand's cannabis presentation will not only attract a different customer than a zipper sandwich bag with a generic white prescription sticker, it will also create brand awareness and in turn, consumer loyalty at a critical early stage in a developing marketplace.
But fine art isn't the only advancement in cannabis packaging to grab our attention. Because growing marijuana is such a tremendous drain on electricity and water, it is crucial for brands to remain cognizant of their inputs and find ways to offset their environmental footprints. Packaging manufacturers are realizing that reusable containers, many of which are made from recycled materials, are the future.
In 2015, the “green” packaging market — reusable containers, packaging made from recycled materials, or biodegradable packaging — was valued at $161.5 billion, a figure that's projected to grow to $242.5 billion by 2021.
Heading into 2018, the cannabis industry will continue its innovation race as trailblazing cannabis companies compete to establish brand loyalty with consumers before the explosion of mass legalization clouds the waters.