Missouri to be testing ground on plain packaging for cannabis products

missouri marijuana

For decades, there’s been a global movement urging “plain packaging” on tobacco products — or packaging with limited colors and frills — after numerous studies found it makes cigarettes less appealing to young people. 

Missouri will soon be a testing ground to see if plain packaging has the same impact for recreational marijuana.

When voters passed the constitutional amendment to legalize recreational marijuana, it included a provision that labels and packaging for marijuana-related products, “shall not be made to be attractive to children.”

Missouri will become one of few states that require plain packaging in the adult-use cannabis market, according to the Network for Public Health Law. The others include Connecticut, Massachusetts and New Jersey. 

The packaging requirements are part of Missouri’s new cannabis regulation rules that go into effect on July 30. 

Amy Moore, director of Missouri’s cannabis regulation under the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services, recently said the approach “ensures the health and safety information is the focus of the packaging.” 

And it diminishes the appeal to children.

“This approach to packaging is familiar to all of us,” Moore said, during a legislative committee hearing in early May. “You think about the cereal aisle versus tobacco packaging or over-the-counter medicines…I can tell you my five-year-old’s favorite color right now is rainbow.” 

Like many states, Missouri has seen an increase in the number of child poisoning cases involving marijuana edibles since recreational marijuana became legal, said Julie Weber, director of the Missouri Poison Center.

For cases of children five and under, it’s increased from seven cases in 2018 to 125 cases in 2022. 

The constitution also says that no marijuana facility can sell edible marijuana-infused candy in shapes or packages that are attractive to children or that are easily confused with commercially sold candy that does not contain marijuana. 

Penalties include fines of up to $5,000 and a loss of a business license. 

When Missouri regulators proposed plain packaging for cannabis products this spring, it caused an uproar from the Missouri Cannabis Trade Association. 

Marijuana businesses have already invested “many millions” in packaging designs, the association wrote in a letter to lawmakers in early May. And they did so because “attractive, interesting, and attention-grabbing packaging is essential to effectively advertise and promote marijuana product sales.”

They also argued that the state already requires child-resistant containers.

However, Moore said those companies knew it was coming after voters passed Amendment 3 last fall. The requirements regarding children’s safety are more stringent than what was included in the constitutional amendment legalizing medical marijuana in 2018.

“We have to notice that,” she said, “and say, ‘Apparently we’re to do more, we’re to do better for children and for health.”

A different approach

 On June 6, 2023, the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services released more guidance, specifying the main packaging should be a primary color, and it can have up to two logos or symbols that can be a different color or even different colors. (Source: DHSS)

Daniel Kruger, a research investigator at the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan, is among those who will be closely watching the states that have implemented plain packaging regulations and the results.  

Kruger led a study on cannabis labels and what best works to minimize harms and risks.

“At the minimum, [the packaging] should have all the warning signs and try to differentiate it from products that children would be consuming as much as possible,” he said. “This would probably be the safest thing to do — to have plain packaging.” 

A good research question for the future, he said, will be: how restrictive does the packaging have to be? Missouri and other states will be key to that study.

Connecticut began selling recreational marijuana in January, New Jersey in April 2022, and Massachusetts in 2018. 

Missouri’s rules will go into effect at the end of July. On June 6, DHSS released more guidance, specifying the packaging should be one primary color, and it can have up to two logos or symbols that can be a different color or even different colors. 

Child-proof packaging requirements will also be stricter.

“Under the old rules, the child-proof packaging element could be met through one layer in a series of packaging,” said DHSS spokeswoman Lisa Cox said in an email to the Independent on June 21. “Under the new rules, the child-proof element must be met (with some exceptions) by the packaging closest to the product, but those rules are not yet effective.” 

DHSS recognizes that it will take some transition time to the new guidelines.

“…we are aware that licensees will need time to come into compliance with some of the new rules, and specifically for packaging,” Moore said, during the May hearing. “We know there will need to be a grace period in order for most facilities to use the packaging they already have.” 

Moore told legislators packaging has been difficult to enforce, so now companies will have to get their labels and packaging pre-approved by DHSS.

Each of the states defines their plain packing requirement differently. Connecticut requires that the package be “entirely and uniformly one color, and shall not incorporate any information, print, embossing, debossing, graphic or hidden feature, other than (the required) labeling.” Connecticut also requires that packaging for edible cannabis products shall be entirely and uniformly white. 

Massachusetts requires that the packaging be plain and prohibits the use of bright colors. New Jersey requires that the packaging be a single color and permits logos or symbols of a different color provided that the logo is no larger than one inch in length and one inch in height.

In Missouri’s first draft of proposed rules this spring, DHSS required companies to have only one color on the label. 

After pushback from MoCann Trade and some legislators, the agency changed the rule to allow “limited colors.” Another compromise, Moore told legislators in May, was allowing for QR codes on the labels to send consumers to their website for more information. 

State Sen. Nick Schroer, R-St. Charles, who is chair of the Joint Committee on Administrative Rules, told Moore that packaging could be considered advertising. And rules for advertising by law can’t be any more restrictive than for alcohol companies. 

“So there’s two things — there’s the packaging and the labeling,” Moore told Schroer. “Both of those things are covered by the public health and appeal to children standards that we’ve talked about. Neither of those things are advertising under the law.”

Hawaii has required plain packaging for medical marijuana products since it became legal in 2015. It’s one of the most stringent of the states, requiring no colors on packaging.

“We have very low rates of unintended poisonings among kids and adults,” Michele Nakata, chief of Hawaii’s office of medical cannabis control and regulation, told the Independent in early June. “We do think that the plain packaging does help with that.”

A measure to legalize recreational marijuana in Hawaii failed this spring. But if Hawaii does approve adult-use marijuana and the health department remains the regulating agency, Nakata said the state would likely follow Canada’s lead in limiting colors and graphics on packaging.

Canada has mandated plain packaging cannabis products since the country legalized recreational marijuana in 2018. According to a government survey released last year, accidental consumption among children under 13 in Canada was “not reportable due to small counts that did not allow for an estimate.”

“I consider Canada to be one of the role models with regards to the way that they’ve rolled out their program,” she said. “They have put public health and public safety at the forefront of everything that they’ve done.”

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