When you think of cannabis, bland and boring aren’t usually the first words that come to mind. However, walk into any marijuana store across Canada, and the products you’ll be greeted with often seem designed to look as dull as possible—and that’s because they are.
Whereas bottles for alcoholic beverages are frequently graced with creative and beautiful designs, cannabis products mostly consist of scary health warning symbols and large blocks of text. Any creative branding is kept to a strict minimum.
In its drive to create cannabis packaging that’s as unappealing to children as possible, Health Canada has a long list of packaging rules that at times seems like overkill. For marijuana companies, the packaging rules are a barrier to actually informing consumers of what they’re selling. For customers, the rules create an absurd amount of waste and make it hard to distinguish one cannabis product from another.
So, how are you supposed to navigate this sea of tightly regulated packaging and actually figure out what you’re buying? To help you out, we’ll take a look at what Health Canada’s rules for packaging cannabis actually are, and how you can wade through it and find the cannabis product you actually want.
Making Sense of Canada’s Cannabis Packaging Rules
If you’ve recently bought legal cannabis in Canada and felt a bit overwhelmed by the packaging, we don’t blame you. Health Canada has a lot of rules for what must go on every cannabis product. This includes:
- An ominous-looking stop sign-shaped symbol containing a marijuana leaf warning that the product you’re about to buy contains tetrahydrocannabinol (THC)
- A black and yellow block of text in English and French outlining cannabis’s health risks
- Information about THC and cannabidiol (CBD) content including weight, number of units/doses and the date of packaging
In terms of branding and actual product information, you won’t be able to find much. Licensed producers (LPs) can display their company name, but it must be smaller than the yellow and black health warning, and it can’t be fluorescent or metallic.
The only real room for creativity is the “brand element,” such as a logo, that LPs can include. But even here, there are plenty of restrictions: If the brand element is a logo, for example, it has to be smaller than the THC warning symbol, which itself must be at least 1.27 cm by 1.27 cm regardless of package size. If the brand element is just text, it has to be smaller than the health warning.
And if you’re wondering whether LPs could show off some creativity with the packaging material and colour, don’t hold your breath. It’s forbidden for packages to be transparent. Instead, they must be a single solid colour with a matte or smooth finishing.
- Be metallic
- Be fluorescent
- Contain cut-out windows
- Have secret panels
- Make noises
- Feature heat-activated ink
- Can’t smell like anything (too bad if you were hoping for scratch-n-sniff packages)
How Do You Know What Cannabis Product You’re Buying?
With cannabis packaging containing more health warnings and government-mandated messaging than actual branding, it can be challenging for customers to actually tell the difference from one product to the other. Unfortunately, the company name and brand element are really the only things on the package itself that are unique.
Also, usually on the back of the package, you’ll find the cannabis strain name as well as the “class” of cannabis, like oil or dried flower. It’s not much, but it’s something.
So, your best bet is to simply do your research beforehand. Look online at what LPs are out there and what products they’re offering. Also, online retailers often display more information about the product than you’ll find on the package.
The Ontario Cannabis Store, for example, has an “About This Product” section that details some characteristics of the plant, such as aroma, flavour and appearance. Sometimes pictures of the actual buds are included too, so you can see what you’re buying.
Cannabis Packaging Is Based on a Flimsy Equivalence With Tobacco
Not surprisingly, these packaging requirements have come in for quite a bit of criticism. High on the list of complaints is that the rules lead to a large amount of waste. For example, a product containing just one gram of dried cannabis flower can contain up to 70 grams of packaging.
In some cases, a single joint is packaged in its own plastic container, which is then packaged inside a box, which itself is wrapped in more packaging. And because of Health Canada’s requirement that cannabis packages be child resistant, much of this packaging is plastic, which makes it even more environmentally unfriendly.
Another problem is the alarmist nature of the packaging. As you may have noticed, cannabis packaging rules are similar—although even more restrictive—to packaging rules for tobacco. Most people probably agree that tobacco should have warning labels since cigarettes have no health benefits whatsoever, but do have plenty of proven health risks.
But the same can’t be said about cannabis, which has been used for medical purposes legally within Canada since 2001. Aside from the fact that marijuana and tobacco can both be smoked, there are few similarities between them. This makes the similarities in packaging a bit nonsensical.
Alcoholic beverages, on the other hand, routinely display creative branding in attractive bottles, with only very minimal health warnings. This is despite evidence showing that alcohol may be more harmful to brain health than cannabis is.
While few people are suggesting that marijuana packaging laws be as lenient as packaging laws for alcohol are, many are hoping that a happier medium can be found. Perhaps a set of guidelines that aren’t so alarmist—and wasteful—as the current rules are.
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