I spend a lot of time in Internet spaces for cannabis enthusiasts, so I've got my finger on the pulse of which strains and brands folks are talking about. If you decide to follow hype trains and purchase the bags you see with all the fire emojis in the comments, it is almost easier to get scammed into buying a counterfeit product than it is to find what you’re looking for. Since I’ve been vocal about my opinions of products and calling out fake packaging, folks have been sliding into my DMs to ask me whether I think a listing is real or not. So I figured I’d break it down for you, Gentleman Toker reader!
How to Tell if Cannabis Packages and Labels Are Fake
I’ve spent an embarrassing amount of time studying online and in-person resources and mentally building what are essentially custody chains for certain distributors to dispensaries. Using investigative skills and an understanding of packaging material design, I’ve honed my speculations on whether a package, label or even the flower itself is fake. In this article, I’m going to share some of the techniques I use to determine the legitimacy of hype flower packs in a traditional market setting, as well as the effect of counterfeit packaging (check out our story on fake THC vape cartridges!) on cannabis culture.
Plug Yourself In
Before getting to some of the hard tells and pitfalls of fake packaging, it’s important to understand the landscape in which these knockoff products exist. It almost goes without saying that the safest option for getting verified California flower is to get it from a legal recreational retail location. The easiest way to find the products you want is to search for them on Weedmaps in California. Weedmaps is not foolproof, though. Brands like Backpack Boyz, Doja Pak, Smokers Club, and 710 Labs don’t have verified brands on Weedmaps at all, so their flower will often be listed as a keyword rather than a brand you can filter by. This is also the case with a lot of products from THC brands that have verified status on the site, which means you must keyword search for the brand’s stock at each individual dispensary in your geolocation.
Following your favorite brands, cannabis companies, and growers on Instagram is an important second line of support for finding your desired products in retail dispensaries. Often, brands will post drops, events, store openings and even low stock warnings as Instagram posts and in stories. Following the brand you like is important to fill in the spots Weedmaps misses, and build a network of brands and associated personnel so you can keep an eye on what's good.
In DC, it’s easy to figure out who’s selling counterfeit products because their people follow everyone the brand works with after they meet them in LA. Any vendor who is stocking Doja packs and doesn’t have any of the Doja reps following them is a huge red flag that you could get scammed by picking up one of those bags.
Having a network of brands and facilitators is a cornerstone for not getting scammed on the traditional market (a.k.a. black market), but it's not as simple as searching on Instagram for your favorite THC product. It often entails taking the time to find and connect with industry players, and figure out who they distribute to and how they connect to vendors and enthusiasts in your area. Some people are on Instagram, while others are on Telegram, Discord, or Reddit. Some have their own websites, while some dispensaries are essentially invite-only, which often means you need a mutual contact to get access as a customer.
The Devil Is in the Details
While the easiest way to have confidence in your purchase is to follow the chain of distribution, sometimes you need to resort to close inspection of the bud and bags themselves — and fake bags are often easier to detect than fake buds. I first learned about counterfeiting culture when I was a kid. My mother was an importer of designer handbags and other accessories, and she taught me about attention to detail. In her case, she looked for inconsistencies in design, stitching patterns, hardware, assembly and emblem fabrication. While the attention to each detail is important, attention to the big picture and how all the details fit together can be illuminating. Sometimes, the only discernible difference between a legit handbag from Maison Goyard and a counterfeit is the stitching technique. You need to know what to look for when you're acting as an anti-counterfeit sleuth.
When it comes to cannabis packaging, we can use the most infamously counterfeited cannabis brand on the market as an example: Cookies. Under their main brands Cookies, Lemonnade, Runtz, Grandiflora, Minntz and Powerzzzup, their artist collaborations with Rick Ross (Collins Ave), Wiz Khalifa (Khalifa Kush), Run The Jewels, and their in-house collaborations, there are a lot of designs to counterfeit. You could order a variety pack of 50 bags for next-day delivery on Amazon or a bulk order of 1,000-50,000 on Alibaba, and most customers probably wouldn’t be able to tell the difference.
On one occasion, I purchased custody-tracked London Pound Cake 75 that I'm guessing was backdoored from a Cookies facility in Northern California based on its size, structure and freshness. But the vendor served the flower in a Cookies London Pound Cake 75 bag, and studying the inconsistencies drove me up a wall. In hindsight, I now know all the features that distinguish the bag I got as counterfeit: sharply creased stand-up folds, a too-high zipper, no “Indoor” foil sticker, and no child-proofing zipper. The material overall was less weighty, as Cookies’ “direct print” bags are a clear plastic bag wrapped with a silk-screen printed mylar label, rather than a laser print applied directly to mylar that's welded into a bag shape.
When you’re researching drops on the internet, or when your favorite vendor posts a turkey bag filled with flower and one branded bag on top for show, it can be difficult to see counterfeit giveaways from a thumbnail image. Vendors with counterfeit Backpack Boyz bags often obscure the top of the bag in photos because the presence of a tear indent is the most obvious indicator that the bag is counterfeit. Another key detail to notice from backdoored bags is whether the bag was heat sealed with a commercial heat sealer versus a home heat sealer, as exhibited by the shape and thickness of the weld. A home sealer leaves a straight thin line, while a retail sealer leaves a thicker-ribbed waffle pattern.
But these details are further complicated by the fact that some brands use different packaging for products sold in retail stores versus products sold on the traditional market. Backpack Boyz, Connected Cannabis, F/ELD, Bear Labs and Wonderbrett, to name a few, allegedly all use this practice to engage in plausible deniability if their product is found outside of where those brands are licensed. Sometimes, these packages look fake when you see pictures online, but they have better material design and print quality when you see the labels for yourself. Doja Pak’s prepackaged drops now use heat transfer thermal-printed strain labels, which feel different from a monochrome direct thermal print. These factors are often nearly impossible to discern in photos, and you can often only tell by comparing the packaging with verified online examples, or by seeing the bag in person.
3 Methods Used to Counterfeit Cannabis Packages
If, when you read how easy it was to get Cookies bags from Alibaba, you thought to yourself “wow, it’s really easy to get custom bags imported,” then you were correct! There are hundreds of vendors on Alibaba selling custom manufactured bags. Typically, they cost between $.05-$.40 per custom sized bag, and you can design them to look just about any way you’d like. Among traditional market packaging manufacturers, it’s common to wholesale bags from Chinese manufacturers as the profit margins are high.
Many traditional market brands also use plastic or mylar bags with their own adhesive vinyl label, which I refer to as “slapped-on labels” or “slap labels.” At this point, using slap labels has become an acceptable practice on the legal recreational market as well, despite being a holdover from vinyl labeling on clear glass jars. The debate on whether jars are better than mylar bags could go on for days, but the fact remains that cannabis labeling has become its own small economy.
Print Shop Fakes
There are now tons of print shops that will take any design and print labels perfectly sized for cannabis bags and THC products. In DC, Glasshouse Graphics/P1 Packaging, Vibez Printing and Evolve Customizations come to mind. In one instance, Glasshouse Graphics printed bags for a vendor who was selling loose Doja Pak strains (as opposed to pre-packaged ones), and the design evoked a collaboration sanctioned by Doja. In another instance, a local vendor put the Shopping Carts 415 logo on their bags as they were a “rep” for the brand, but the flower in the bag was not confirmed to be from Shopping Carts 415.
These vendors are selling flower that they verifiably got from the right source, but the bags aren't legitimate collaborations. The risk of custom printing resulting in a greater instance of counterfeit bags has yet to be determined, but we hope that small print shops have the backbone to not profit off IP theft.
Counterfeit Mylar Bags
On a smaller scale, it’s never been easier to buy mylar bags, design something simple in Photoshop and print it on vinyl with a home printer. Speaking from personal and anecdotal experience, it’s not difficult to go from a design idea to producing enough bags for a vendor’s new drop in a matter of hours, provided you have the expertise and tools including an inkjet printer, printable vinyl adhesive paper, mylar bags, a laminating machine or acrylic coating, an electronic die cutter and a subscription to Adobe Photoshop (the free photo editor GIMP works too).
The Last Nug
Counterfeiting is legitimately a problem for the social acceptance of cannabis culture. It perpetuates the idea that both the craft and corporate cannabis sectors are scams, as well as the myth that legal cannabis producers and brands are scammers by nature. Understanding the big picture of where your bag and the bud in it comes from, along with techniques to avoid being scammed on the traditional market, are necessary to push social acceptance forward. It’s one of the only surefire methods to draw the masses to support the best cannabis brands and elevate the image of cannabis culture, even in prohibitionist states.
Over the last three years, bona fide cannabis brands have emerged on the traditional market in a way cannabis communities didn’t see before brands like Cookies and Backpack Boyz launched the exciting packaging scene. Twenty years ago, you were lucky if your dealer had sandwich bags. Today it’s difficult to sell enthusiast grade and “exotic” cannabis without cereal box-like branding, even when 20 different colorfully designed packs all hold the same mid-grade indoor Lemon Cherry Gelato.
Part of the reason cannabis packaging designs have become so popular is because they indicate to the consumer that the THC product is supposedly safe for the collective. In markets where safety compliance is crucial in keeping a business afloat, packaging has become a McLuhan-ist “the medium is the message” way for producers to shout from the rooftops that they have the fire, even if you can’t see it or smell it.
David A. Paleschuck, author of Branding Bud, wrote the book around two major tenets: first, that cannabis branding is a bridge to healing from the War on Drugs, and second, that cannabis branding is the cornerstone to brand loyalty. If we as consumers want to embrace cannabis branding as a means for social equity in weed, then we should support those who are working to make their brands socially accessible. Now that you're armed with the knowledge of how to spot fake weed packaging, you can browse cannabis products with confidence, and give your hard-earned money to the right folks.