Medical Marijuana Packaging: The New Frontier

Medical Marijuana PackagingEnter Now

Editor’s note: This piece originally ran in the 2017 fall issue of Print magazine. 

Medical marijuana packaging is a new frontier. And Jeff Johnson, founder, owner and designer of Replace in Minneapolis, has just completed a brand and packaging system for Vireo cannabis products.

By Sam Holleran

If you were anywhere near a college campus, public park or jam band concert this 4/20—the annual stoner holiday celebrated on April 20—the pungent skunk-like smell was probably so pervasive that you could be forgiven for thinking that marijuana was completely legal in the United States. Despite Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ recent counteroffensive reminiscent of 1980s saber rattling, the rules around cannabis are quickly changing and the rest of the U.S. is moving on. Weed is now legal in eight states. While many legislative kinks have yet to be worked out, the industry is already a booming business. In just a few years recreational marijuana use has moved from a verboten pastime to a market force.

State-sanctioned use of the drug has long been under significant fire from cultural conservatives, but the vast majority of voters in legalized states don’t seem to mind the new odors—or the significant tax streams they generate (last year Colorado collected nearly $150 million in marijuana taxes, with much of the money going to public schools). The American public at large has even developed a certain fascination with the new “green economy,” as evidenced by a slew of reality TV shows with punny titles like “High Profits,” “Weed Country” and “Bong Appetite.” Horticultural innovation and enterprise have produced new varieties of weed and new ways to get high, including vaporizer pens, concentrated hash oil “pollens,” and even cannabis-infused sexual lubricants.

As the legal status of the drug has changed, so has its status in culture, and with that, its demographic reach. So it comes as only natural that the look of the industry would have to change, too.

Medical Marijuana Packaging

A selection of devices from the curated online shop Tetra, which seeks to “[celebrate] the new rituals of smoking through a lens of great design.“

The cannabis market sector has been in dire need of a fresh identity to reflect its now-legal status, grown-up patrons and novel consumption methods. The cultural tropes that graphic designers have drawn on to rebrand weed are diverse. The visual reworking of America’s favorite flowering botanical began with identities for entrepreneurial growers, chocolatiers and merchants. They wanted to make it clear that they were operating businesses of good repute. The key was to trash counterculture tropes of years past; the dispensaries of Denver don’t have the Bob Marley tapestries, black-light posters and grungy furniture you’d find in an Amsterdam coffee shop. Instead, they opt for the sterility of a high-end juice bar. The patchouli and hemp aesthetic of High Times magazine has been eschewed for clean functionality. Colorado’s dispensaries are literally that: points for dispensing a product. You’re not allowed to use, or even open, items in-store.

When marijuana first hit the market in Colorado just over three years ago, graphics ran the gamut—from illustrations that their products were for hand-rolling tobacco only. Slowly but surely, the smokescreens of the past are blowing away.

Medical Marijuana Packaging

Cannabis product Plus Gum eschews the typical—and outdated—marijuana aesthetic for a fresh look.

So what’s next?

The developing public health conversation around the packaging and sale of cannabis products in recreational-use states is the place where designers have the most opportunity to emerge as leaders.

In 2015, Colorado proposed new rules for the labeling and potency of weed-infused edibles. The tighter regulations came after several cases in which children unwittingly ingested edibles, thinking they were regular sweets. Design guidelines for pack- aging are in the works, and developing them is an opportunity for creatives of all stripes to collaborate with public health, law enforcement and other civic officials in new and interesting ways.

Streamlined growing and harvesting methods have made it possible for people to get much higher levels of THC into their bloodstreams, but there are few dependable methods for dosing and measuring new marijuana products. There is great potential to utilize basic information design to help new users understand the high different strains deliver. This might take the form of a numerical ranking system, or a multi-colored heat spectrum. Additionally, designers can be deployed to create safe storage mechanisms for cannabis products. In Denver, stores are already required to sell products in a childproof vinyl bag (the locking mechanism, which takes two hands to open, is more powerful than a pill bottle and will probably serve as a deterrent to overly stoned adults, as well). Other storage solutions have been developed by savvy entrepreneurs, many of them women. Jeanine Moss, a 62-year-old who started smoking to treat post hip replacement pain, developed a line of aroma-control handbags and clutches. Designers and architects are also beginning to create interiors, point-of-sale units and storefronts that allow dispensaries to blend into their neighborhoods.

The issue of how the government would label legal marijuana was not at the forefront of policy makers’ minds as Colorado rapidly rolled out dispensaries in January 2014. However, politicians and designers watched as Washington state—which took a more cautious approach in bringing pot to the market—blundered the logo of their oversight authority. The original seal seemed dashed-off: It featured a jagged cannabis leaf in the outline of Washington state. It looked more like a dorm room flag than a new government agency. The regulators, who are lodged within the state’s liquor control board, quickly rescinded the seal and have yet to develop a new one. Learning from Washington’s mistake, Colorado developed a we-mean-business crest to be applied to all marijuana products. It features a shield with an angry eagle and the words “Department of Revenue: Marijuana,” encircled by “Criminal Enforcement Division.” It is a concession to the old-school graphics of authority and trust, playing on the same conservatism that keeps U.S. currency so bland, even as the state government moved to rebrand with a perky mark featuring a cartoony mountain top.

As the Cheech and Chong take on marijuana draws its final hit, designers and other media makers have been—and will continue to be—key in the shifting cultural connotations of cannabis.

Medical Marijuana Packaging In 2015, the Colorado House convened an Edibles Work Group that included elected officials and representatives from child welfare, food safety, law enforcement and marijuana organizations. The collective was tasked with developing a “universal symbol” that would distinguish, say, “Chewy Ganja Granola Bars” from garden-variety granola. Conspicuously absent in the group were designers—and it shows. The symbol they ended up with to signify cannabis content reads as “! THC” lodged in a fire diamond. While this symbol is an improvement on the “Criminal Enforcement” shield (that it will supplement, not replace, it should be noted), it leaves much to be desired.

On the whole, designers need to actively work to insert them- selves into the marijuana conversation, and in so doing prove the very real worth of design in communicating public policy. One hopes that Colorado will collaborate with designers to develop new, intelligible packaging, perhaps something along the lines of the Nutritional Facts label that other recreational-use states could also adopt. It will take time and money, and the convening of people from disparate fields: design, public health, the community, science. Carrying out testing with users will be iterative and probably not cheap, but, with some hundreds of millions of dollars in pot-related revenue, the state can likely afford it.

The U.S. at large is having its marijuana moment, and this is a formative, defining time. As the culture of Cheech and Chong’s take on marijuana draws its final hit, designers and other media makers have been—and will continue to be—key in the shifting cultural connotations of cannabis. The challenge now is to prevent the industry from sliding back into the past visually, especially as some policymakers try to turn the clock back legally.

In such movements, though, it’s usually only a matter of time before progress wins out. So while the future may seem uncertain, it is, undoubtedly, fragrant.

Medical Marijuana Packaging Medical Marijuana Packaging

Sam Holleran is a writer, interdisciplinary artist and educator investigating topics in graphic culture and urbanism. He has worked with the Center for Architecture, the Design Trust for Public Space and the Center for Urban Pedagogy in New York City. He is currently at work on a book about visual literacy.