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Why Can't Weed Just Look Like Weed?

by Rudy Sanchez on 04/20/2021 | 7 Minute Read

Attitudes and laws towards cannabis in America have softened over the years, and this 4/20, the unofficial holiday for marijuana, even a plurality of Republicans are in favor of some level of federal legalization, only 8% still favor total prohibition—including medical use—according to Pew Research. Seventeen states and the District of Columbia have legalized recreational cannabis, and 19 more states allow medicinal use. Half the states and DC have partially or fully decriminalized cannabis possession. While teenagers might still be hiding their stash from mom and exhaling through sheets of fabric softeners, as a nation, most of America is at least tolerant of the sweet leaf.

So why are brands trying so hard NOT to look like weed?

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With legalization came startups with branding focused on functionality and wellness. Often they lean hard on a celebrity spokesperson or investor. Pain relief, beauty, athletes, hipsters, moms—name a niche, and there’s likely at least one cannabis startup vying to serve it. But with legalization came the influx of legit capital and the cadre of marketing professionals looking to stake their claim in the new and still growing industry. 

In the green rush, however, we lost the collective weed aesthetic. Even the word weed somehow got left behind, replaced with the more corporate cannabis.

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Packaging for weed, of course, used to be more pragmatic and practical in prohibition—and wholly unregulated, obviously. 35mm film canisters were repurposed as packaging, doing a great job keeping bud relatively fresh and hidden from Officer Stadanko. Jewelry bags worked for minute amounts, and sometimes your friendly dealer would use the same Elsa baggies they use to pack their kid’s lunch. It's not like your dealer cared that much about design.

Legal cannabis packaging is much more elaborate. For starters, labeling and child safety rules necessitate more material, more design work, and plenty of disclaimers. Rules against using imagery considered appealing to children is verboten, so no weed in anything close to Frozen baggies.

Back when weed was illegal for everyone, its taboo and criminal status gave weed its own culture and look, even with a diverse consumer base. Visual tropes such as the Jamaican flag, the pot leaf, and alien heads had tight, strong roots with those that partake and are well-known stereotypes known among the squares.  

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Legal cannabis has none of those things. Essentially, an entire category emerged overnight once Washington and Colorado legalized recreational weed back in 2012. It was almost like pot had to grow up fast—this meant an influx of brands trying to make cannabis more approachable for society as a whole.

Cannabis has moods; it’s about wellness, performance enhancement, sleep, and anti-anxiety. Cannabis is about micro-dosing throughout the day so that you can maintain your chill. Even in California’s medical marijuana days, everyone knew that a doctor’s recommendation was little more than paperwork so one could buy weed. California stoners couldn’t technically smoke weed just because it’s awesome—you had to have a medically related reason, even if it came with a wink and a nod.

For twenty years in California, the time between the passage of Prop. 215 and Prop. 64, consumers were conditioned to have an excuse to toke up. Even though legal and recreational cannabis is now allowed within the Bear Republic, consumers may have been too well-conditioned to provide a reason for cannabis. It's OK for you to crack open a beer, so why can’t folks consume cannabis to unwind and play some music? Instead, users need to justify its usage, having to say, “it’s for an old sports injury, I swear!”

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It’s about time to drop the taboos and pretenses and get back to toking like our boomer parents swear they only did once and didn’t even like. 

Not literally, obviously. And we certainly don't want the same anemic bud full of stems and seeds they scored—it's about smoking weed that isn't scared to be, well, weed. That isn't to say those products haven't been around the past few years, but now there are brands with top-notch design from creative teams and agencies that explore the kind bud's potential. It's a nod to the days when reefer culture meant espousing not-racist conspiracy theories about government cover-ups, noodling jam bands, and blacklight posters of pot leaves and toadstools.

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It is possible that in the drive to bring cannabis to the masses, the uniqueness of weed got lost. Legalization and legitimization are intertwined struggles for proponents of cannabis. Like a band with a fierce and early fan base, weed lost some of its distinctiveness that built the weed identity and subculture, and frankly, legal cannabis isn’t as cool anymore, man.

Federally, Mary Jane appears as close to legalization as it has ever been, though President Biden continues his opposition to prohibition's end, despite having enough support in the legislature, as well as states continuing to take action on their own. That might see cannabis branding continuing to sanitize weed, making it more palatable for mainstream consumption amongst a nation's eager moms. But legalization could also inspire a new celebration of marijuana and its subculture now that it’s finally legal across the country.

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Though Barkbox is not a cannabis brand, dogs and stoners have a lot of simpatico with each other, so it makes sense that it would create a 4/20-themed collection. Playing with poochies is a fun stoned activity, as stoners and dogs are just as easily amused and down for snacks. For some smokers, a dog walk is also an ideal time for a joint. Barkbox comes back in 2021 with a new set of “very normal” dog toys and green veggie snacks. Chew and catch toys come in the form of droopy-eyed joints, pot leaves, grinders, bongs, and lighters. Treats are made of dog-friendly ingredients but are also weed-themed with packaging to match.

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Cookies is a cannabis firm that embraces street art and culture in the branding of its premium strains. The approach to each offering is unique, but each reminiscent of weed-friendly subcultures from the past. Cheetah Piss, a take on the popular strain Cat Piss, sports a trippy, psychedelic logo, while London Pound Cake is a play on British currency with a subversive, satirical take on the queen that's a counterculture throwback. Other emblems like Cereal Milk, Georgia Pie, and Gellati have the same cheeky and playful tone while being executed distinctively.

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Alien Labs branding, as the name suggests, draws inspiration from a popular stoner topic of conversation—extraterrestrial visitors—and uses abstract, trippy patterns on its packaging. The bright neon colors are also a bit of a nostalgic throwback to the 90s when many cannabis consumers would load up their implement of choice and sit down to the newest episode of The X Files.

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Old Pal’s branding finds inspiration in the halcyon days when we passed a joint around. Type is a combination of throwback fonts and the packaging feels quaint and rustic. Even the logo’s walking man bears a passing resemblance to a familiar rolling paper brand's hirsute mascot.

JUUG is a nod to an aesthetic that rose around the hustling of illegal cannabis. Edgy and dark, the name comes from underground trap culture, as to “juug” is to make money with little regard to others and the law. The underground vibe that came from the days of illegal weed-slinging carries over into Juug’s packaging, which they call a “stash can,” a soda-looking tin that hides an eighth of premium buds inside.

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Even if a brand gets founded with a focus on addressing specific uses or consumers of cannabis, there’s no reason today to hide from the old weed tropes and visual elements. As with any branding strategy, the intent and execution make all the difference. There’s a thin line between obnoxious-college-dorm-room and a nod to weed’s past. Brands like Barkbox, which isn’t even cannabis-adjacent, are having fun on 4/20 with classic stoner-inspired dog products. It’s a testament to the general acceptance of weed in America and an homage to the old heady days of toking for fun.

Cannabis brands like Cookies, Alien Labs, Old Pal, Jugg, Space Coyote, and Awesome Dope also leverage nostalgia for the pre-legalization weed experience. Elements inspired by the illicit nature of weed, such as communal consumption on "special" occasions, rustic and folksy branding, hidden-in-plain-sight “stash” packaging, and aliens, have all been used to dazzling effect by some cannabis brands. They stand out from the neutral and drab look that has come to dominate many upstart cannabis companies.

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There’s nothing wrong with getting high, nor is there anything offensive about celebrating stoner culture. Sure, cannabis can grow up, and it's OK if your brand aspires to be the Starbucks of weed. But there's more than enough weed to pass around, and brands can inject a little fun or a sense of nostalgia into the smoking experience, too.

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