Producers blame federal guidelines as customers raise concerns over ‘excessive’ cannabis packaging

Greg MacLean, who picked up some legal cannabis at the Nova Scotia Liquor Corporation last week, was shocked to see how much packaging was used for four grams of weed: two plastic containers, two cardboard boxes, and clear plastic casing, all enclosed in a brown paper bag. The Canadian Press/HO - Greg MacLean

Some cannabis buyers are complaining the bulky packaging is environmentally unfriendly, but producers say government guidelines are to blame.

Greg MacLean, who picked up some newly legal cannabis at the Nova Scotia Liquor Corporation last week, was shocked to see how much packaging was used for four grams of weed: two plastic containers, two cardboard boxes, and clear plastic casing, all enclosed in a brown paper bag.

“My initial reaction was a bit of shock that such little amount of plant matter came with so much packaging,” he said.

“I’m a medical user of marijuana as well, and I’ve been buying from different dispensaries online from certified providers, and nothing comes like that. Like, ever. Crazy. It’s unneeded.”

READ MORE: Can the Conservatives reverse cannabis legalization?

As per Health Canada’s guidelines, packaging must prevent contamination of the cannabis, be tamper-proof, and be child-resistant – a step up from the plastic baggies the product was often sold in before legalization.

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“Do they really need to have that?” said MacLean, 37.

“I mean, no liquor bottles that they sell at the NSLC has a childproof cap on it, and a bottle of vodka would kill a child.”

Candace MacDonald also bought cannabis on legalization day and was similarly shocked when she got home and unboxed her products, which also came in layers of packaging. She bought 5.5 grams, and each strain came in different containers.

Out of curiosity, she weighed the “very hard plastic container” for a single gram she bought, and was appalled to find that it outweighed the product by nearly 40 times – 38 grams of packaging for one gram of weed.

“And once you open it, it’s just such overkill. There’s one itty-bitty bud in it, and I could probably pack half an ounce in there,” she said.

Allan Rewak, executive director of the Cannabis Council of Canada, said the industry has been concerned about potential waste diversion problems “for a while,” but also understands Health Canada’s caution.

Rewak said all packaging and warning signs have to be of certain dimensions and also childproof, which add to the amount of materials used.

“It has to include real estate so to speak, to include all the warning labels and warning signs as well as an excise stamp that the federal government prescribes,” he said. “The good news is most of the product packaging is recyclable.”

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Rewak, whose organization represents licensed producers of medical cannabis, says the industry would like to work with the government to reduce packaging. He said warnings can be included on an insert within packaging that is already sealed with an excise stamp.

“This is something that we are going to have to look at in time, particularly as sales continue to increase because we don’t want this to be a contributor to the degradation of our environment – in fact we’d like it to be the opposite.”

Myrna Gillis, CEO of Aqualitas, one of three licensed cannabis producers in Nova Scotia, said the company has been aware of the environmental concerns since before customers brought them forward.

While they don’t have a licence to sell yet, she said Aqualitas is working with a packaging company in an effort to design environmentally friendly containers that fit Health Canada’s guidelines.

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“So, packaging that meets the requirements of the regulator, but is recyclable, and has less plastic on it,” said Gillis.

“We were also looking into the potential of recycling hemp, to have the packaging also incorporate some of the features of the cannabis plant itself.”

Asked for comment, Health Canada spokesperson Maryse Durette provided a link to cannabis regulations, and asked that any further questions about how provinces choose to adhere to their regulations be directed to the provinces. She would not provide further comments on environmental concerns.

Andrew Preeper, Nova Scotia’s cannabis legalization spokesman, said licensed producers determine their own packaging while following Health Canada rules, and the province itself has no involvement in cannabis packaging.

Mark Butler, policy director for the Halifax-based Ecology Action Centre, said the issue speaks to a larger one of environmental responsibility being foisted on the customer.

“I don’t want to diminish the importance of safety … but I also think, and you see it time and time again, the environment, or the recycling of the material, or the package, is the last thought that comes into the manufacturer’s, marketer’s, or producer’s mind,” he said.

“And it should be one of the first thoughts, because, inevitably, what happens, it’s not the company making and selling the product that has to deal with the packaging, it’s you and me, standing in front of our blue box, trying to figure it out, or it’s the municipality having to deal with all this waste. And there’s a cost to that.”

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He added that over-packaging is an issue for all products, not just cannabis.

MacDonald said she was also concerned because some of the cannabis packaging wasn’t resealable, meaning she needed to find another package to put it in.

She said the excessive packaging will likely drive her to buy more cannabis in bulk, and she had been looking forward to trying different strains.

“That’s one of the benefits of legalization, is having all of these options, and knowing exactly what the THC content is, and trying all of these different strains we didn’t have access to before,” she said.

“I really want to buy one-off grams, but the fact that it comes in a box, with the plastic, really makes me think twice about it, that’s for sure.”

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