Expanding Your Cannabis Brand: Plan Your Packaging & Labeling Strategy

38 states have legalized cannabis. 38 versions of cannabis laws all with the same objective—to ensure consumer product safety. Commonly, state laws point to federal standards that exist for child resistance (Poison Prevention Packaging Act (PPPA)), pesticides (Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA)), and food handling (Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA)).

That said, between the 38 states, there are plenty of differences, and those show up in the nitty-gritty details that appear on the product label—health warnings, regulatory statements, THC symbols, THC limits, and more.

Planning for packaging and labeling in advance will help maintain brand integrity, control costs, and ensure compliance across states.

This fragmented regulatory environment creates confusion, cost, and risk. It also forces brand owners and licensees to talk about costs and responsibilities in a thorough way. Planning for packaging and labeling in advance will help maintain brand integrity, control costs, and ensure compliance across states. Here are some of the nitty-gritty details to consider:

Brand Design/Logo

Building a successful brand starts with giving it a name and designing a distinctive look that speaks to your target market. Are you selling in one state or do you plan to expand? Commonly, state regulations prohibit images of humans, cartoons, and children, as well as any resemblance to commercially available non-cannabis consumer food, beverage, or candy products. But what about images of fruit? Be careful. Be prepared to adapt. In Massachusetts and Illinois, images of apples, lemons, and berries on the package are fine, but in Maine and Maryland, they’re not. Some states regulate colors and layout.

Font Specifications

Within labeling regulations, some states specify easy-to-read fonts (e.g., Arial, Helvetica, Times Roman), font styles (e.g., bold, all capitals), and font sizes (e.g., 1/16” is the minimum in some, 1/12” in others). Illinois relies on reasonable judgment: “Warning statements should be of a size that is legible and readily visible to a consumer inspecting a package.” If you have any questions about legibility, think about what an inspector may say.

Warnings & Regulatory Statements

Edible products need to contain nutrition facts, ingredients, allergens, and more.

Warnings printed on cannabis labels differ from state-to-state, but all contain verbatim statements regarding health risks, pregnancy, breastfeeding, and emergency instructions. Most advise caution, though some say “impairment,” while others say “intoxicating” and “illegal.”

Regulatory statements, like warnings, are usually provided verbatim. The statements can be age requirements, health authority disclaimers, or testing disclaimers. Always required are the manufacturer’s name, contact information, and a version of “keep away” from children and animals.

Edible Requirements

Edible labels are regulated the same as consumer packaged foods, so they must include ingredients, allergens, and nutritional values, but some states require more or different information. For example, depending on the state, people are told that the effects of edibles “may take longer than expected.” In Massachusetts, Illinois, New Jersey, and Maryland, the label specifies the delay could be “2 or more hours.” In Maine and New York, the warning says “4 hours or more.” Other states simply warn without a quantitative measure or fail to mention it. 

THC Symbol

The THC symbol is a good example of how different states have different labeling rules. Starting with California and Colorado, each state that legalized cannabis chose to design and adopt a unique THC symbol (with the exception of Maine, Vermont, and Massachusetts, which share one). In 2020, Doctors for Cannabis Regulation proposed a universal THC symbol, the “International Intoxicating Cannabis Product Symbol (IICPS).” In 2022, ASTM International recognized the symbol and published the Standard Specification for International Symbol for Identifying Consumer Products Containing Intoxicating Cannabinoids and it’s starting to take hold in the U.S.

Batch Specific Information

This is the label that is printed on site and applied to a finished package. Again, requirements may differ between states, but typically, at a minimum, this label will include a batch number, product identifier, manufacture date, weight, package date, test date, cannabinoid potency values, and more.

A growing segment of consumers is becoming more educated and seeking to make informed decisions about the cannabis products they are inhaling, ingesting, or applying. Beyond THC and CBD potency, they want to know about other cannabinoids, terpenes, and flavonoids. For them, QR codes that link to this information are highly valued. Is this part of your brand strategy?

When designing a package for a single state, it is critical to create a template batch label and specify where it will be applied on the label artwork. This way, you will avoid stickers covering your beautiful branding or, worse, obscuring regulatory content.

And Finally, The Container

Cannabis packaging companies offer a wide range of containers that meet federal rules about keeping kids from getting into them. (Request certification documentation for your records.) Other considerations include the brand strategy. What’s the “look and feel”? Simple for the budget-conscious, premium for the luxury buyer? Will you be offering single servings, multiple servings, and how many flavors or strains?

In addition to the usual variables such as volume, price, and delivery, cannabis manufacturers also need to keep an eye on state regulations when making procurement decisions. Some states are considering aligning sustainability goals with cannabis packaging requirements. For example, within New York’s proposed adult-use regulations is a provision for manufacturers to incorporate at least 25% post-recycled consumer content into their packaging. While the law as written may not get adopted, the movement for states to consider sustainability in cannabis packaging regulations has begun.

The variation in labeling regulations between 38 states is in the nitty-gritty details. Brand owners and licensees that take a strategic approach to expansion will minimize the cost of goods, maintain brand integrity, and ensure compliant labeling in each state they sell.