The debate around what constitutes appropriate packaging for legal drugs has attracted significant attention in recent years. Plain packaging for cigarettes was introduced in Australia in December 2012, and it was announced just last week that England is set to follow suit in the near future. Packaging for newly legal cannabis products has also been on the agenda in the US, particularly in Colorado, whose legal recreational cannabis market came into effect earlier this year.
In the below extract from our recent major publication, ‘How to Regulate Cannabis: A Practical Guide’, we identify the challenges posed by cannabis packaging, which Colorado and other jurisdictions that have legalised the drug will have to confront, and provide recommendations for how to address them. We welcome discussion on the issues raised in the comments section below.
Appropriate packaging? Cannabis 'lollies' available in Colorado
- Ensuring the packaging is child resistant to help minimise the risk accidental child ingestion and poisoning
- Ensuring key product content, risk and advice information is available on the packaging
- Ensuring packaging serves to preserve freshness and quality of the product
- Ensuring packaging design is not likely to encourage use
- Established packaging technology for food and pharmaceuticals can be easily adapted to meet the needs of cannabis packaging
- The small but real risk of accidental child ingestion and poisoning can be minimised through the use of child resistant packaging
- Child resistant plastic containers offer an adequate level of protection for the majority of cannabis products, are relatively inexpensive and meet other packaging requirements
- Tamper-proofing measures could be included in packaging design if deemed necessary
- As with alcohol, tobacco and pharmaceuticals, packaging provides an ideal vehicle to display key product and safety information
- Packaging design and branding can be used to make products more or less attractive and encourage of discourage use
- All take-out retail cannabis products should be sold in opaque re-sealable child-resistant plastic containers- with additional tamper-proofing measures included on products if deemed necessary
- Home-grown cannabis should also be required to be stored in child resistant packaging
- Information on packaging should be modeled on established norms for pharmaceutical drugs and recent lessons from tobacco packaging, with additional information and messages as appropriate
- The contents and prominence of packaging information should be determined by the appropriate public health authority and be legally enforced
- By default, packaging should be standardised and non-branded
- Packaging regulations should be clearly outlined in law and properly enforced
Child resistant packaging
There is a risk of accidental ingestion of cannabis products by children, particularly under-fives. The medical literature suggests this is a real risk but that such incidents are very rare. There does, however, appear to be an increased risk with certain more concentrated preparations and, in particular, cannabis edibles that are more attractive to children and infants, such as cakes, brownies or sweets.
Even if this risk is relatively small, measures that could reduce it should be adopted. We recommend that established ‘child resistant’ re-sealable opaque plastic containers (as used for medicines, some foods and domestic products) should be used by default for all retail cannabis products – even for herbal cannabis, which presents a lower-risk as it is not palatable to infants. This is a sensible precaution, and has the added political benefit of demonstrating a strong commitment to child safety. Such containers are mass-produced and inexpensive (costing only a few cents each) and therefore have little impact on total cost for either purchaser or retailer.
Cannabis-infused sweets: high risk of accidental ingestion by children when packaged like this
The risk of children accidentally ingesting cannabis-infused food products is another argument for restricting or prohibiting sales of edibles, at least in the early stages of any new regulatory model. Prohibiting edibles for take-out – as opposed to on-site consumption in a licensed venue – might be a reasonable compromise, but permitting sales of products that obviously resemble sweets, such as lollies or chocolates (particularly in packaging that resembles conventional candy products), is an exceptionally bad idea, and should be avoided. People who wish to consume edibles would of course be able prepare them at home with ease, using herbal or resin cannabis, so such a restriction should not be viewed as overly stringent. If, however, edibles are to be made available for take-out retail, any risks can, as mentioned, be minimised by the use of child resistant plastic containers. Labelling on such packaging would need to have prominent warnings about potential risks of child ingestion, and the responsibility of the purchaser to prevent it (see below).
Home-grown cannabis, and obviously any home-made cannabis edibles, should also be stored in child resistant containers. Although legally mandating or enforcing specific rules would be problematic, failure to abide by storage guidelines might be taken into consideration by enforcement or prosecutors if accidental child (or indeed adult) ingestion occurred. This is probably more an issue for intelligently targeted education – highlighting potential risks and encouraging responsible storage in the home.
Effective packaging can help to ensure quality, reduce the possibilities for tampering, and allow the purchaser or user to know if tampering has occurred. Established product packaging types used for pharmaceutical drugs can easily be adapted for use with cannabis products.
For example, existing medical-style containers featuring sufficiently secure seal mechanisms could be appropriate. Such mechanisms include breakable caps or inner seals of thermal plastic or foil over the mouth of the container. Packaging of this kind is already utilised by many suppliers in the medical cannabis industry and could be more widely deployed as needed.
Information on packaging, and packaging design
Experience with alcohol and tobacco packaging provides some guidance here – mostly on how not to proceed. Over the past century, the design priorities of alcohol and tobacco packaging have been shaped by commercial interests.
Reverse-engineering appropriate packaging that carries clear information on the risks of these two drugs has proved problematic, with voluntary efforts by the respective industries woefully inadequate, and legislators reluctant to mandate changes. This situation has at least begun to change with tobacco packaging in recent years – firstly with the appearance of prominent health warnings, and more recently with the adoption of plain packaging in some countries.
Branding and design of packaging plays a key role in the appeal of a product. Alcohol and tobacco packaging is evidence of this, having been created with the specific intention of encouraging initiation of use, increasing use, and ensuring brand loyalties. Design can act as a marketing device by making the product more eye-catching and attractive, which in turn helps facilitate product placement in a range of media and associations with certain desirable qualities or aspirant lifestyles for target markets.
The kind of eye-catching, youth-focused packaging used for some alcoholic drinks. Packaging for cannabis shouldn't go down the same route
Recent years have witnessed growing calls from medical authorities for such marketing practices to be restricted, particularly for tobacco products, in line with already widely established controls on other forms of marketing. Research clearly demonstrates how design and branding influence purchasing behaviours in ways designed to encourage increased initiation and use. Claims to the contrary from the tobacco industry defy not only the vast body of expert research and opinion, but common sense: why would the industry invest in such marketing and so passionately object to plain packaging if not for commercial self-interest? In 2012, Australia became the first country in the world to introduce plain packaging for tobacco products, and a number of other jurisdictions – such as Scotland, England and Wales, Norway, Ireland, France, the European Union, India, Canada, New Zealand and Turkey – are contemplating similar moves.
We propose that the design of packaging for cannabis products, and the information it carries, be more closely modelled on established norms for pharmaceutical drugs, with unbranded packaging, devoid of logos or any form of marketing-led design. Packaging design should be functional, restricted to only providing product and safety information on labelling (edibles having to additionally comply with local food and beverage labelling rules). The specific design content and prominence of packaging information should be determined by the appropriate public health authority and be legally mandated.
The detail will vary between jurisdictions, but in the box below we have proposed a guide to what packaging information should include. Clearly the volume of health, risk, and harm reduction information listed cannot fit on a single product package label. Solutions to this could involve one or more of the following:
- Rotating a series of key messages on packaging labeling (in a similar way to the health messages on cigarette packaging). Certain core safety information – such as reminders to keep out of reach of children or not drive under the influence of cannabis – should, however, always be included on packaging
- Inserts similar to those found in most pharmaceutical products could be used, with a single folded piece of paper with detailed product information inserted into even the smallest containers. A standardised insert, which would be inexpensive to produce, could be mandated for inclusion with all retail cannabis products for reference whenever needed
- A web-link to an appropriate online resource could be prominently signposted on the packaging. A QR code could also be included for smartphone users
Transform's guide to the information that should be included on cannabis packaging