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Alcohol and Cannabis Packaging Rules Show That a Lingering, Hypocritical Stigma Still Exists

by Rudy Sanchez on 08/04/2021 | 4 Minute Read

Fighting back the criminalization of cannabis over the past decades has been a slow march towards an acceptable compromise between states, the federal government, and activists. Overcoming objections to decriminalization included accepting taxation, with funds earmarked for the public good, along with strict rules that would help prevent getting "drugs" into childrens' hands. 

Of course, legal cannabis is to get sealed in ASTM-compliant child-resistant packaging and only to be sold and delivered to verified adults over 21. All of which is pretty sensible and inevitable.

Another provision attached to recreational cannabis, however, is that branding, packaging, and the promotion of their products can’t appeal to children or use designs that mimic regular food packaging. The idea is to prevent kids from even being tempted to touch the devil’s lettuce, even though accidental consumption of infused candies and snacks is a trumped-up fear used to demonize cannabis, even in legal states such as Colorado.

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But are the rules aimed at the cannabis industry to not appeal to children fair? 

Other intoxicants like alcohol aren’t as restricted in the marketing, packaging, and distribution of their products. Even federally legal hemp-derived cannabis products that don’t contain THC (like delta-9) aren’t subject to the same rules even though it comes from the same plant.

While legal cannabis operators are following the strict rules regarding packaging, players in the cannabis black market openly flaunt trade dress and copyrights, using candy-like packaging for their illicit edibles. Those wanting an above-board and legal cannabis industry accept the restrictions.

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Cannabis edibles, for example, can’t even use the word “candy” on the package, but beer and confectioners are free to collaborate on brews with no stigma. Recently, Artisanal Brew Works in New York debuted a Warheads hard seltzer and sour ale collaboration, complete with labels featuring the same exploding cartoon head and bright depictions, similar to the candy packaging. The beers and seltzers are fruity flavored, and you can characterize the colorful cans as looking more like sour sweets than beer. The association with candy and packaging that mimics popular confections is cause for alarm when associated with weed but lauded as nostalgic fun when featured in hard seltzer.

Alcohol bottles aren’t required to have child-proof packaging, and beer comes in the same aluminum cans as soda and with the same tabbed opening. Cartoon characters are prohibited from cannabis packaging, though it seems totally cool for beer labels. Similarly, beer made with childrens' breakfast cereal is totally cool, but cartoony leprechauns are anything but charming on cannabis packaging.

Our inconsistency surrounding age-restricted products isn’t just confined to cannabis either. Tobacco, an entirely legal product for better or worse, has seen the government come after vape products that taste like candy or other sweet flavors with packaging that many considered enticing to teens. Dessert-flavored vodka, however, doesn’t seem hindered in the least by concerns over teen consumption.

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Is the answer to apply the same onerous rules to alcohol that we do to cannabis and tobacco? No, of course not. But the inconsistencies are glaring, especially when the CDC characterizes underage drinking as a “significant public health problem,” with 3,500 deaths attributed to alcohol abuse by minors annually. While the US restricts alcohol sales to those over 21, its wide availability, low cost, and social acceptance mean that sneaky high school kids have little trouble attaining liquor, beer, or wine. Being underage for the first half of college also does little in stopping 18-to-20-year-olds from attending booze-filled bacchanals with classmates that are of age (and you can say the same of weed, too).

It is unlikely that craft brewers, vodka makers, and cannabis firms want to attract children as customers. The more plausible explanation is simple; adults like tasty treats too, especially ones that trade so hard on childhood nostalgia. Just like LEGO kits, video games, and comic book movies, grown-ups appreciate the simple things sometimes. Furthermore, we trust adults enough to keep alcohol out of reach from children without the need for restrictive rules surrounding packaging design, even when it’s whipped cream vodka. Are we to assume that cannabis users are not responsible enough to safeguard edibles? If so, why then was cannabis even decriminalized?

Look, society hasn’t collapsed at the hands of hippie heathens hopped up on legal dope. Perhaps it’s time to revisit the rules surrounding cannabis packaging and give the modern cannabis consumer with a sweet tooth the same courtesy afforded drinkers.