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Design Considerations for Cannabis Packaging & Labeling

As a heavily regulated industry, cannabis packaging and labeling must account for stringent design requirements in addition to eye-grabbing decorative effects, proper material selections, and effective messaging.

    6 minute read

As a nascent industry, cannabis is in the early years of establishing norms around packaging design and labeling. As new brands proliferate, industry competitors are looking for ways to stand out among consumers.

Effective packaging can empower those efforts. 

Here are some important elements of design to consider as you create your next line of products.

Packaging Regulations & Labeling Requirements

As with pharmaceuticals, packaging in the cannabis and CBD industries is heavily regulated, with stringent requirements. Brands have to balance eye-grabbing visuals with vital consumer information. You can’t just slap an attractive design on a box. It must be compliant with federal, state, and local regulations.

For reference, here’s a handy guide from Leafly, a website dedicated to cannabis use and education, detailing state-by-state packaging and labeling laws. While there are certainly some nationwide similarities, each state takes its own approach, and you’ll want to further investigate to ensure you’re acting within the law. 

There are several types of regulatory requirements you need to consider for cannabis packaging and labeling. 

Display or Storage of Cannabis Products

For example, in Washington State, all cannabis products must be stored behind a counter or similar barrier to ensure customers do not have direct access to the product. If consumers can’t easily handle your product, as they would in a more conventional industry, you may want to emphasize how a product looks sitting untouched in a glass counter display. 

Child-Resistant Features

In California, for instance, cannabis products must be packaged in child-resistant packaging. So, you must factor in the relevant materials and layers that can meet this standard. This might include tamper-proof measures, such as something heat sealed with no easy-open tabs or flaps, making products difficult for a child to open.

Specific Label Requirements

For consumer safety, vital information must be included on your labels, such as the ingredients, warnings, health risks, impairment of abilities, proper dosage, or batch number and barcode to identify where the product was manufactured or processed. 

Additionally, you may have requirements for separate label sections. California, for example, demands cannabis manufacturers include a “primary label” and “informational label” for medical cannabis. 

Labeling Restrictions

Certain visual features must also be avoided when producing cannabis packaging and labeling. Drawing from California regulations, again, label content cannot be designed to appeal to anyone under age 21. This includes cartoons, any imitation of candy packaging, or any phrases, likeness to image, or characters that are popularly used to advertise to children. 

Your state may also not allow you to claim any health or other physical benefits from using cannabis. 

Decorative Effects & Packaging Materials

While important, considerations for cannabis packaging and labeling aren’t restricted to regulatory concerns. You also want to reflect on decorative effects and packaging materials options.

You’ve gotta stand out in the display case!

Plus, effective messaging will generate brand loyalty. 

So whether tinctures, capsule boxes, or folding cartons, you want decorative effects that capture attention, convey your brand’s values, and function to protect and preserve cannabis during display, storage, and beyond. Packaging and labeling can add incredible value to your product.

Here are a few design elements worth considering.

Coatings and laminates not only provide additional protection against scratches or abrasions, but deliver a remarkable shine. Gloss coatings are vivid and iridescent, with a matte finish that reflects light. Tactile coatings are raised or texture elements, which leave a lasting impression on consumers once in their hands. Pearlescent inks take glossiness to the next level, injecting tiny reflective particles into clear UV coatings. Strike-through and reticulating varnishes provide unrivaled rub resistance and high gloss visuals. 

Hot foil stamping utilizes a heating method to apply foil to a substrate, creating a striking metallic finish. Hot foil stamping produces a bright design with any color, in addition to the more traditional silver and gold. 

Cold Foil is a similar end result, but relies on ultraviolet light techniques to attach foil to a substrate. Cold foil colors can extend across the CMYK and PMS spectrum. 

As far as packaging materials go, paperboard is a mainstay, but given the green nature of the cannabis industry and growing number of environmentally conscious consumers, you may want to consider post-consumer recycled paper or other sustainable alternatives such as hemp, cotton, sugarcane bagasse, and other tree-free options.

If you prefer to employ paperboard or cardboard, be sure you source it from responsibly managed forests, as certified by the nonprofit Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), Sustainable Forest Initiative (SFI), or Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification (PEFC).  

Anti-Counterfeiting Packaging

Counterfeiting is another major concern cannabis manufacturers need to consider. Criminals will repackage their own products in your branded packaging or try to imitate your packaging as a way to sell illegitimate goods. 

This can be especially dangerous with cannabis products. If a consumer ends up with an illegitimate product, their health could be at severe risk. Plus, counterfeit products circulating in the market can harm your brand’s reputation, because consumers don’t usually know whether a product is counterfeited or not.

It’s best to avoid this scenario by implementing anti-counterfeiting packaging, which can come in the form of overt and covert authentication solutions.

Overt authentication solutions are visible to the naked eye, while remaining difficult for criminals to mimic. Among these:

  • Color-shifting inks change color based on viewing angle.
  • Holographic seals and labels involve advanced graphics that can’t be replicated without high-end printing capabilities.
  • Pearlescent inks create a particularly shiny effect that’s easily discernible by manufacturers and legitimate retailers.
  • Tamper-evident closures can indicate whether something has been modified.
  • Specialized 2D and QR codes make tracking of branded products much easier. 

Covert authentication solutions are those that remain visibly undetectable without aided technology. This includes:

  • Hidden indicia is ink that becomes visible with a special lens of decoding software.
  • UV and infrared (IR) light-reactive inks are verified using UV or IR light technology.
  • Thermochromic inks reveal specific visuals when they undergo extreme temperature changes.
  • Digimarc barcodes and digital watermarking involve hidden images that can only be revealed using specifically designed devices.
  • Taggants are imperceptible molecular or optic symbols added later to inks, which become visible when aided by special laboratory equipment. 

Few industries are as heavily regulated as cannabis, which makes packaging and labeling an unusually daunting task. However, when you work with an experienced printing and packaging partner familiar with the legal requirements and industry-leading design elements, you can be assured your cannabis products aren’t only compliant, but attract the attention of consumers. 

Oliver is a printing and packaging manufacturer with more than 250 years of combined experience across many industries, including cannabis and CBD. Contact us today to learn how you can elevate your brand. 

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