Just about anyone familiar with cannabis knows the term “dime bag.” It derives from a quarter-ounce of dried flower, which back in the late 1960s cost about $10. Today a “dime bag” is just shorthand for a small amount of weed in a plain plastic bag.
As the industry has matured over the last several decades, so too has the packaging for cannabis products, making them more attractive and enticing to customers. And the legalization of adult-use cannabis in Canada and many U.S. states has opened up a whole new world for product differentiation that is fundamentally changing how cannabis is perceived — and purchased.
To go back in time, cannabis was actually legal in the United States for more than 100 years until it was banned in the early 20th century. Prior to its prohibition, it was often marketed as a patent medicine, wrapped in paper packages or put in printed boxes like many other products in the fledgling pharmaceutical industry.
During prohibition, cannabis packaging was designed to be as anonymous as possible. After all, possession was a crime with serious legal consequences in many jurisdictions, so drawing attention to the product wasn’t a great idea. That’s why the plastic baggie was the universal packaging standard for recreational cannabis for so long. Think of it as an intentional anti-brand.
Nevertheless, creative cannabis connoisseurs began to make devices to store and transport their favorite products. Necessity is the mother of invention, so throughout the 1960s and ’70s it was common to find wooden boxes and other handmade items specifically designed to hold small amounts of cannabis, sometimes with puzzle elements or hidden compartments. Walk into any head shop in North America and you’re pretty much guaranteed to see contemporary versions of these classics. But it was still very much a bring-your-own-package cottage industry.
It wasn’t until the push for legalization in the mid-1990s that customers could acquire medicinal marijuana, often in opaque glass jars, featureless plastic tubes or other nondescript containers. This allowed patients to discreetly take the product home for private use. The rare examples of on-package branding were subtle and associated with the dispensary, not the flower, meant to gain return business, rather than marketing to new customers. While legalization remained spotty and slow, there were no industry packaging standards, creating a free-for-all market still focused primarily on hiding the product.
In 2012, Washington and Colorado legalized recreational cannabis, and with legalization came the first steps toward standardized packaging. These standards were aimed primarily at safety in keeping with new state regulations, including resealable child-proof openings, opaque surfaces and tamper evident seals.
Still, a legal business allows for open branding. For the first time since the days of patent medicine, medium- or large-run attractive packaging began appearing on consumer-facing cannabis containers in dispensaries that catered to both recreational and medicinal needs. Entrepreneurial growers, wholesalers and retailers all put their stamps on their product as recognizable brands and strains debuted in the market.
As legalization has spread state by state and across Canada, cannabis packaging has remained the province of smaller, local companies that can serve their nearby areas, especially since cannabis — still federally illegal in the U.S. — is not allowed to cross state lines. These smaller packaging companies brought their own unique flair to the industry, while some consumers stuck with handmade boxes and pouches to express their personalities.
Another major change in the need for new packaging approaches came with the advent of smoke-free cannabis products, such as gummies. Not only do these need to be airtight to preserve freshness, but they also need to meet food-grade standards, as mandated by U.S. and Canadian law.
The more legalization expands, the more that the cannabis market will transition from cottage industry to big business. As time goes on, we will see an increase in standardized and mass-produced packaging on brands that dominate entire regions and demographics. This brings its own benefits, such as new ways to keep the product fresh until it can be sold and consumed. It also includes the incredible convenience of automated packaging processes and cannabis packaging machines — a necessity to keep up with skyrocketing demand. The bigger the cannabis industry becomes, the more efficient, streamlined and convenient it will be for producers, retailers and consumers alike.
While it’s hard to deny the practical benefits of automated packaging and long-term freshness, mass-produced homogeneity may not be the best thing for cannabis branding. Packaging can be a vehicle for expression, for individuals to make their own boxes and bags and for local companies to express their personality.
That strong sense of uniqueness should serve the cannabis industry well in the era of social media, trade conventions and personalized branding. Consumers, especially of cannabis, are attracted to creativity and memorable presentation, and the COVID lockdown ushered in a surge of home orders where memorable packaging is often the only interaction consumers get with a brand.
The cannabis industry is growing from the underground to the boutique to the mainstream. As cannabis packaging comes in many forms — from medicinal pill-bottles to attractive reusable pouches — custom printing is available for both small and large orders.
Businesses looking to thrive in the market should consider how best to leverage the efficiency and technology of mass production with the personality and authenticity so beloved by cannabis enthusiasts. It’s these companies that will secure the most prosperous future.
Andrew Witkin is CEO of StickerYou, a Canada-based company that manufactures custom branded stickers, labels, pouches and signage for businesses around the world.