LA Cannabis: New Packaging Laws, All Wrapped Up

[Editor’s Note: The costs for new packaging laws extends beyond money. Packaging laws are increasing environmental waste and making it impossible for some to access their medicine. We need to balance safety with logical laws & regulations.]

Ever since Prop 64 legalized recreational cannabis in Los Angeles in November 2016, the city’s Bureau of Cannabis Control (BCC) has slowly been rolling out the myriad of new licenses and regulations they’re creating to govern the cannabis industry. While many recreational users and medical marijuana patients weren’t fully aware of the regulatory details of the proposition when they voted for it, they’re now suddenly seeing the effects in local dispensaries. Giant mason jars of flower are gone, replaced by tiny pre-packed and sealed eighths. Medicated free samples are gone for good. Stickers and labels cover almost every inch of every package. And everything from pre-rolled joints to bath bombs to edibles are now shoved inside some new, impossible to open version of a ziploc bag.

Many of the new packaging regulations that went into effect in July 2018 are intended to ensure that marijuana consumers get a safe product. The manufactured cannabis safety branch of the California Department of Public Health’s website states that, “Cannabis product packaging cannot resemble traditionally available food packages and must be tamper-evident, re-sealable if the product includes multiple servings, and child-resistant.” Cannabis product labels can’t refer to them as candy or include cartoons, and must list THC and CBD levels as well as lab testing results for possible contaminants. Batch numbers are now required on labels from everything from growing plants to final products for the California Cannabis Track-and-Trace (CCTT) system. This enables regulators to inventory and monitor cannabis through the supply chain, “including cultivation, manufacturing, retail, distribution, testing labs, and microbusinesses.” Edible cannabis products must include an ingredients list, some nutritional facts, and contain clearly discernible doses of no more than 10mg.

While most of the new regulations seem logical in theory, many have unforeseen complications in practice. Child-proof and tamper-resistant packaging may be safer for children, but hard to open packaging can have major drawbacks for medical cannabis patients. Jenevieve Yektazarian uses cannabis to treat her severe carpal tunnel syndrome. “I can’t carry my water bottle somedays, how do they expect me to get into my products?” Yektazarian says, “I have shed tears over this. Sometimes I’ll buy a topical and I can’t get into it because of the child-proofing and I’m like, it’s not fair, because I need this [medication] right now.”

Child-resistant packaging rules have also lead to the omnipresence of plastic or mylar pinch & slide exit bags, an odd move for a state that’s also trying to end the use of plastic bags. When the current legal grace period we’re in is over, manufacturers and producers will be responsible for their own compliant packaging, which will take the burden of child-resistance away from dispensaries. It also means those catch-all compliant pinch & slide bags should become unnecessary. The Bureau of Cannabis Control released Amendments to Prop 64 this past October, which clarified that beginning January 1, 2020, cannabis exit packaging will not be required to be resealable or child-resistant itself but must be opaque – which is why many shops are going back to the classic and more environmentally friendly paper bag. However, stores will still be able to use the pinch & slide exit bags to satisfy their child-proof and tamper-proof packaging needs after January 2020 if necessary, and many have such a large stock already that we could be seeing the annoying things for years to come.

Environmental concerns about new package regulations are also on the minds of many patients in Los Angeles, and the budtenders at California Caregivers Alliance have heard it firsthand. Laurie Cardenas says, “It’s creating a bigger carbon footprint. Many people complain about that, especially in Silverlake where a lot of our clients are eco-friendly.” She says customers have inquired about possible recycling programs for things such as used jars and vape cartridges, but none exist yet that she knows of. “People who like cannabis are a very nature loving, tree hugging people. I feel like we want the best for our future and our children’s future, and now there’s so much more trash in the landfills just because of legal cannabis,” fellow budtender Anna Kallinikos added, “It’s an entire new industry of waste.”

Many customers have been blaming their local dispensaries for things like products suddenly disappearing from shelves or paying for plastic exit bags. Cardenas says that, “A lot of companies have to mark up their prices because of all the new laws and taxes. It’s definitely affected us as a shop.” While almost everyone in the cannabis supply chain has been affected by the laws, customers tend to blame storefronts where they regularly shop for rising prices. “They complain that prices have gone up and I have to explain like, bro, you voted for this.”

When the newest round of the BCC’s regulations went into effect many consumers noticed bare shelves that appeared overnight at shops around Los Angeles. The deadline for new packaging sent many vendors scrambling to recall products and get compliant ones back out to stores. The cost of all of that on top of new testing, licenses and packages put many smaller cannabis companies out of businesses. Kallinikos says, “The mom and pop people have kind of disappeared since July 1st when everything went fully compliant.”

Many worry that cannabis is fast becoming another industry that’s only open to the wealthy or rich investors. Those who had more money to spend on branding and marketing already had an advantage over small companies. Now with new regulations, such as requiring all cannabis products to have the Universal Symbol (that crazy marijuana leaf with the exclamation point inside a triangle) on them somewhere visible and specifically in black only, many smaller companies are floundering under the added costs of new labels and stickers to satisfy rules. Budtender Victoria Arana adds, “When a joint comes in 4 layers or more of packaging, most times it’s beyond the point of child-proofing, its for branding.”

While new cannabis packaging and labeling requirements address many important consumer safety issues, legislators will eventually have to answer to the environmental and economic costs of their regulations. Arana says, “At some point the BCC and the industry as a whole have to take responsibility for the waste they’re putting out. Humans and the environment are more important than profits.”

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