This weekend is going to be dope. Each year on 4/20, thousands of people flock to Golden Gate Park’s Hippie Hill to celebrate San Francisco’s favorite funky, skunky, green herb: marijuana.
But people will have to figure out how to access their favorite pre-rolls, gummies and flowers first. After California legalized the recreational use of cannabis, legislators and regulators developed strict packaging guidelines. Most cannabis and cannabis products must now be in re-sealable, tamper-evident, child-resistant containers.
Unfortunately, these plastic boxes and bags can also be difficult for adults to open.
“The packaging can be hard for me to get into,” Chris Schulman, the general manager of San Francisco’s Grass Roots dispensary, laughed.
Schulman remembers when pounds of cannabis were delivered in turkey bags. Employees at the dispensary would put flowers in jars and distribute varying amounts to customers in small baggies. Now everything is individually wrapped in cardboard, plastic and glass containers. Dispensaries are also required to bag all purchases.
While some packaging is recyclable, it still takes a toll on the environment. Plastics are produced from natural gas and refined crude oil. Making plastic can create air pollution and contribute to climate change. When customers are done with packaging they don’t always recycle it. Containers that make it into the blue bin travel to foreign markets in Asia for recycling, which requires a lot of energy.
“The regulations are admirable for the child safety aspect and meeting the state’s goals for security and tracking,” Schulman told me. “But the bottom line: they’re in conflict with zero waste principles.”
The conflict isn’t always necessary or useful though. Cannabis products that don’t pose a risk to children don’t need wasteful packaging. In addition, hard-to-open packaging may not be protecting children from exposure to cannabis edibles, according to limited data from poison control centers. Making containers easier for adults to open while maintaining child-resistant attributes could be a more effective approach.
According to the California Poison Control System, calls to centers regarding exposure of children 5-years-old and under to cannabis have not changed dramatically since packaging regulations went into effect. In fact, the Washington Poison Center identifies an increase in calls for children under 5-years-old. Of the calls where the type of cannabis was known, most reported exposure to cannabis edibles.
“We don’t know if the trend is upward because more people are exposed or because it’s legal and more people are comfortable reporting,” Katie Von Derau, Managing Director of the Washington Poison Center, told me. “We also don’t ask any questions about packaging when people call.”
While the data doesn’t support an argument that child-resistant packaging is not working, it does raise questions. If packaging is sometimes hard for adults to open and children are still accessing edibles, it could be that consumers are storing candies and gummies in something easier to open at home. Critically thinking about the effectiveness of packaging is vital to its success.
It’s also important to only use wasteful packaging when it’s necessary. That’s not always the case for cannabis products that aren’t edibles. It’s hard to imagine that many children under five are tempted by buds and joints, for example. Plus, eating cannabis flower produces little likelihood of intoxication, the nonprofit Couincil on Responsble Cannabis Regulation wrote in a recent publication
The realities of plastic production and pollution don’t afford us the luxury of unnecessary packaging regulations. As with all forms of waste, we must carefully consider what we need to protect health and safety. Sometimes single-use plastic serves an important purpose; other times it does not.
Hopefully, all containers will open easily on Saturday and visitors to Hippie Hill will safely and sustainably celebrate San Francisco’s tradition.
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Robyn Purchia is an environmental attorney, environmental blogger and environmental activist who hikes, gardens and tree hugs in her spare time. She is a guest opinion columnist and her point of view is not necesarily that of The Examiner. Check her out at robynpurchia.com