Abiding by California’s ever-changing packaging regulations is a headache for local cannabis companies — and a challenge to efforts at sustainability
In January of this year, the California Department of Public Health adopted new packaging and labeling requirements for all cannabis products sold in California. The new regulations replaced the ever-shifting emergency regulations that have been in place since cannabis became legal in January 2018.
Local cannabis manufacturers hope the new rules will put an end to the moving target that has characterized packaging and labeling rules up to this point.
“The constantly changing regulations have been a real hindrance to the industry,” said Rachel Smith, vice president of business development at Elyon Cannabis, a Sonoma County-based manufacturer of packaged buds and pre-rolls (packaged joints), as well as cannabis “sauces” and vape pens.
“I know so many companies that have warehouses of packaging that, because the regulations changed, are just a loss,” she said, noting that it’s been difficult for companies to buy in bulk — and take advantage of economies of scale — because of shifting regulations.
If the past is any predictor of the future, however, things may not settle down any time soon.
At the end of August, the Surgeon General of the United States released a new warning about cannabis — particularly its use by adolescents and pregnant women — which may eventually end up required on cannabis packaging in California.
But for now, federal warnings from the Surgeon General, such as those that appear on tobacco cigarettes, aren’t required on cannabis because it’s still illegal at the federal level — and how can you put a warning on something that federal government doesn’t even recognize as a legal consumer product?
But don’t worry, because this is California, there are state warnings aplenty on every package of cannabis.
What do California’s new packaging and labeling regulations require?
The state’s regulations require that cannabis and cannabis product packaging must be
• child resistant
• tamper evident
• resealable (if the product has multiple uses).
Packaging for edibles must not only be opaque, but manufacturers are forbidden from showing an image of what the edible looks like — for fear it might look like something that would be appealing to a child.
In addition, the labeling on the cannabis package may not:
• be attractive to children.
• make health claims.
• use the word “organic,” in violation of federal and state laws.
• use a California county name unless 100% of the cannabis was grown in that county.
And of course, it must carry the aforementioned California government warnings — the California Cannabis warning (see sidebar “You’ve been warned”) and, if the product contains one of the 900 chemicals currently on the Prop. 65 list, a Prop. 65 warning.
Finally, every layer of the packaging must carry what is known, in properly cosmic lingo, as the Universal Symbol — a triangle with the silhouette of a cannabis leaf and an exclamation point.
These packaging and labeling regulations went into effect at the beginning of the year, except for the child-resistant packaging, which will go into effect on Jan. 1, 2020. Until then, stores that sell cannabis products in non-child-resistant packaging must put the package in a child-resistant bag (called “exit packaging”) before the consumer leaves the store.
Some of these regulations sound relatively simple, even wise — who wouldn’t want to have child-resistant packaging for a drug? But the devil, as usual, is in the details, and there are lots and lots of details in the new regulations. (See sidebar: “What’s on the label?”)
“Some might say there is an issue with the over-regulation of packaging cannabis,” said Matt Simpson, Elyon’s vice president of sales, “but at the end of the day, we all have to follow those regulations and stay up to code.”
Packaging challenges: aesthetic, environmental and economic
Fitting all that information onto a small package is a design challenge, manufacturers say.
“There’s a lot you have to fit on a small package so it’s hard to put it all together in a way that actually looks good to the consumer and keeps your brand looking nice,” Simpson said. “Fortunately, you can use different layers (of packaging) to satisfy different regulations.”
The Garden Society, a woman-oriented company licensed out of Cloverdale, is well known for its elegant packaging. Garden Society packages edibles and pre-rolls, and co-founder Karli Warner shares Simpson’s frustrations.
“Having to work within those confines while also trying to build a beautiful, high-quality package for women to enjoy can be challenging,” she said.
It’s also challenging from an ecological perspective. For an industry that started out with weeds in the woods in eco-conscious Northern California, the cannabis business is now awash in plastic — thanks in part to child-resistant packaging and economic choices on the part of manufacturers.
“What’s on the market is either inexpensive and terrible for the environment or expensive and working on not being so terrible,” Warner said of the mostly plastic-based solutions for child-resistance.
“I don’t know if there are any solid, good solutions yet,” she said. “They’re working on it. I know Sharpak, our partner who does our pre-roll boxes, they’re working hard to discover different kinds of materials that are hemp-based or made from recycled materials.”
Simpson said it’s surprisingly hard to find sustainable, high-quality cannabis packaging.
“We’re working on solutions for that every day,” he said. “One thing we’re very excited about is compostable pre-roll tubes that are child resistant — these things are supposed to be fantastic. They’re supposed to break down within 90 days in a landfill, or a year in standard trash.”
“We’re constantly looking out for better, more sustainable, reusable packaging solutions,” he said. “We’re looking into doing a jar recycle program, where customers can bring them in, we can wash them and get them back out there in circulation.”
The problem is the ecological alternative — when there is one — is often expensive.
“Right now our milk chocolates are in a Mylar bag,” Warner said. “Our preference, of course, would be for them to be in a beautiful box, but because the ingredients inside the package are so expensive — we use high quality chocolate, we use full-spectrum cannabis inputs, we use all organic ingredients — by the time we get to the package we’ve had to make some concessions to make sure we’re not pricing ourselves out of the market.”
Warner hopes regulators will take a more nuanced approach to packaging and labeling regulation in the future.
“I think certainly edibles should be in child-resistant packaging, but I think for dark-flower pre-rolls it doesn’t make a lot of sense for those to be child resistant,” she said. “I just hope that the regulators can take a little more of an individualistic approach.”
At Elyon Cannabis, Smith is philosophical about the regulatory challenges of cannabis.
“It’s unlike every other industry where clear standards have been established over time,” she said. “This is just one of the hurdles we have to go over. In the wine industry, for example, the regulations have been worked on for over a hundred years, and we’re only in year two.”
Find links to all the new packaging requirements at cannabis.ca.gov/2019/03/07.