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Gray Area: Designing For The Highly State-Regulated And Federally Illegal Cannabis Industry

by Colt Stander on 03/15/2021 | 4 Minute Read

Unlike any other industry in recent times, cannabis is in the unique position of being legal in some form for adult use or medical purposes in 36 states while remaining a Schedule I Controlled Substance—and therefore illegal—at the federal level. 

Yes, the tide is turning. More Americans than ever support broad legalization, while the politics around the issue are rapidly evolving, particularly when viewed through the lens of economic recovery or the need for systemic social justice reform against the backdrop of a war on drugs. 

But despite this groundswell of growing support, a challenging reality remains: cannabis faces a patchwork of state regulatory schemes that are changing rapidly. That is particularly challenging for multi-state brands that must track and comply with a multitude of regulations. At best, rules are absent or open to varied interpretations. At worst, regulations directly conflict with each other resulting in a significant impact on how brands design, manufacture, and produce their products—from how they bring merchandise to market to how they advertise to consumers. 

A critical skill required for longevity in the cannabis industry is an ability to be nimble, creative, and develop flexible solutions—often within an ambiguous gray area. In cannabis, design often plays a larger than usual role in that process as we work to meet not only today’s needs but also tomorrow’s challenges. At PAX, while not directly “plant-touching,” we still work closely with our Government Affairs and Legal teams to remain at the forefront of changing rules. That way, we can implement them across our business, working hand in hand with internal and external stakeholders on our shared goals—a sustainable cannabis industry that prioritizes consumer safety (and does so with great design).

Designing With Scalability—and Creativity—In Mind

Packaging and advertising rules vary wildly from state to state. Some states allow packaging to have color, while others do not; some require layers of information and warnings, others not so much. A few states allow advertising through outdoor media, while some ban billboards outright. 

For those groups operating across multiple states, developing a scalable visual brand system is essential for maximum flexibility. But frequent regulatory changes make packaging and meeting other compliances really difficult and expensive. One way many solve for this is by designing for the lowest common denominator—or most stringent regulatory market. In execution, this results in a modular product or a brand campaign that you can easily adjust for a wide range of channels and asset types. It’s also why consumers will often see recurring packaging themes across brands and standardized containers among competitors on dispensary shelves. Whether it’s the usual preroll tube or frequently used child-proof, tamper-resistant boxes, an entire sub-industry services the needs of these hyperlocal regulations. That way, brands can focus on making great products with compelling graphics instead of creating unique structures for each state.

Borrowing Rigor From Other Industries

As cannabis continues to mature, regulatory evolutions are often borrowed from the best practices of more established industries, particularly as it relates to consumer safety. There’s a huge opportunity to get ahead of this predictable shift by borrowing lessons and experience from reference industries to design for cannabis. That helps to establish cohesion across brands and states while delivering a hierarchy of information that best informs consumers—all before policymakers think to require it. 

One example of this is how color-coding gets used by cannabis brand Eaze to delineate indica, sativa, and hybrid strain types on their online menu. This brilliant and simple design solution, inspired by pharmaceutical industry best practices like Target’s award-winning Clear Rx system, is increasingly deployed by cannabis brands to make it easier for consumers to navigate their purchases and better keep track of products and potential effects. 

Participating In the Policymaking Process

There’s an old political adage that if you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu. Trite as it may be, this couldn’t ring more true than in cannabis, where policymakers are grappling for ways to address real problems, and unintended consequences abound. 

In 2019, California required that the universal cannabis warning symbol appear not just on external product packaging but vaporizer cartridges themselves. The contents of these products get consumed at temperature, and we were concerned about using inks or adhesives that might produce byproducts harmful to consumers upon being heated. 

Our designers came up with a solution for a sticker over the lip of our PAX Era Pods. The consumers would see it and then remove it, avoiding this risk. But the process was labor-intensive and created a clumsy experience for the consumer, so we got to work advocating for more distinctive solutions. Assemblyman Evan Low sponsored legislation amending the size requirements, allowing us to safely etch it into our pods. A small change—from .5” to .25” to be precise—but one that had an outsized impact on both consumer safeguards and industry compliance.

One thing is for sure—for designers who like to blaze new trails, cannabis is the place to be. The opportunity for innovation, simplification, and education through design is endless, particularly as the legal status of cannabis and regulatory requirements are poised to continue to evolve significantly in the coming months and years.