In 2016, when recreational marijuana was legalized in Massachusetts, the idea behind 1620 Labs was hatched. As is often the case when a new market opens up, a vacuum is created that sucks folks in from other markets. In this instance, four local career changers shared a vision of leveraging their combined expertise—namely in horticulture, landscape architecture, real estate, and investing—and applying them to a fledgling industry. In particular, they saw a gap in the market for the highest end, premium cannabis flower for use in pre-rolled cannabis cigarettes (pre-rolls). In a business environment where large companies were flooding this fresh new market with whatever they could grow as soon as they could grow it, 1620 Labs positions itself as a carefully produced craft cannabis cultivator.
“Even though we’re employing advanced technology [horticulturally speaking], we’re doing things old school,” says Mike Lance, COO, 1620 Labs. “Ours is very much a hands-on approach, with a lot of love and a fierce dedication to the ancient art of thoughtful cultivation. We’re growing plants in small batches using real soil. Instead of using harmful chemicals, we are using all-natural compost tea for fertilizer and have also adopted a natural pest control methodology using primarily beneficial insects, including ladybugs. Our staff is at the facility around the clock taking care of the plants, constantly monitoring the pH balance of the soil, and checking humidity levels in the grow rooms. We harvest by hand, as well as hand trim each flower to produce the highest quality products.”
But, especially with cannabis, starting a business from scratch isn’t just a matter of having a dream and hanging out a shingle. In fact, getting the business up and running was a four-year process, and a very specific order of operations needed to be followed. This included site selection (Athol, Mass.) first, then a lengthy process of town and state approvals for a cultivation license, and only after receiving a provisional license was the company able to concentrate on retrofitting the building to meet the needs of the new business. In March 2020, 1620 Labs received the go-ahead to start growing, and on October 26, 2020, it received authorization from the state to commence operations as an adult-use cultivator. Lance sees his company’s slow but certain path to production as a transformation story, one that isn’t over yet.
“Our commitment to transform Athol and the lives of its citizens will continue to grow with each new harvest,” Lance says. “Likewise, the transformation of our little company will continue with Phase Two as we look to expand our footprint on the property. We own a mill building next to our current facility, with plans to knock it down and build another state-of-the-art grow facility in its place. This new building will be three times the size of our current building—a vital part of our transformation goals to bring more jobs to the area and build on the promise of a better tomorrow.”
Packaging a key component
As 1620 Labs began the process of investigating packaging solutions for its product, an industry notion Lance frequently encountered was that packaging was an afterthought; common knowledge held that the product would sell itself. And there was some truth to that—there was a certain period where the cultivators struggled to keep up with new, pent up demand. But Lance looked at it differently.
“More generally, we knew wanted something that was different than what was out there. A lot of retailers, when I started meeting them, emphasized that the packaging wasn’t necessarily that important yet. It wasn’t what was drawing people to the flowers. A lot of the market is driven by just numbers right now and meeting demand,” Lance says. “But as we went in, we knew that we wanted the full presentation—to have that high testing flower, as well as really nice-looking packaging.”
This is a good place to note that the primary packaging on a pre-roll isn’t discarded, it’s actually consumed (smoked) by the consumer. The packaging in that case—what would have traditionally been called the rolling paper—had to be something that would produce a favorably slow burn compared to other pre-roll paper on the market.
“We aren’t putting trim [also called shake, trim is loose cannabis leaf no longer adhering to the more favorable bud or flower] into our pre-rolls, we’re putting flower in so it’s a really high-quality product going in, and we wanted that to be represented throughout the brand.”
But as career changers coming from landscape architecture, marketing, and finance, the packaging supply chain was a steep learning curve. Director of Marketing Liz Carroll put out a call for samples from suppliers, and there was a wave of possibilities and considerations, but the solution arrived upon was a slam dunk, according to both Carroll and Lance.
The package system was an 85-mm, 0.5-g pre-roll system, packed either five to a child-resistant paperboard push-pack carton, or two to a child resistant J-tube. Among competitors sampled, “it wasn’t really close, this one was an easy choice,” Lance says.
Soup-to-nuts packaging solution
The company selected Custom Cones USA, a builder of pre-roll machinery and supplier of pre-roll packaging, like cartons and cone-shaped rolling papers. The advantage Custom Cones presented 1620 Labs was the simplicity of a complete, turnkey solution for the emerging pre-roll brand. The supplier was able to provide everything 1620 Labs needed to get that super-premium flower—expensive material that had already consumed so much science, space, light, water, and general TLC—into a pre-roll cone, then into a child-resistant push-pack carton or J-tube, and finally into a corrugated shipper or bin.
The most basic unit in the packaging operation is the cone itself—this is a cone-shaped, pre-rolled rolling paper awaiting filling with cannabis flower. Aligning with 1620 Labs’ desire for as natural an operation product as possible, the cones are 100% organic hemp rolling paper. They include an integral folded hemp paper filter structure, best described as a spiral of heavily folded paper that adds stability at the base of the pre-roll where consumers hold it in their fingers or lips when consuming. These cones arrive at the 1620 Labs facility as nested 10-packs.
Ready for filling, the cones are hand loaded, open or female side up, into a semi-automatic vibratory filling station called a Sluice Box, sold by Custom Cones. The three-layer filling system consists of vibratory base, a lower receiving cartridge holding the cones, and an upper cartridge from which cannabis flower is dispensed. Watch a brief video on how the Sluice Box works at pwgo.to/5858. The base of the Sluice Box is a vibratory mechanism designed to gently vibrate the cannabis flower from the upper cartridge into the cones in the lower cartridge. The lower cartridge consists of slots designed to hold the cones. The company uses a Sluice Box with a 406-slot cartridge for 85-mm cones, but for larger 98-mm and 109-mm cone sizes, a cartridge containing 325 slots is available.
Once the cones are loaded (which takes about 15 minutes), the upper cartridge with a corresponding slot pattern is placed on top, and the hand trimmed cannabis flower is placed loosely into it. Turning on the system, vibrations shake the flower into the cones lined up beneath the upper cartridge slots.
The whole three-layer set-up sits on a rubberized mat to help absorb vibration and catch loose product. A final step is a tamping tool with male pin pattern to match the female slot pattern on the lower cartridge. This allows mass tamping of cannabis flower into the cones. (article continues after sidebar)
Video: Cannabis Packaging—Watch a deep-dive discussion with cannabis brand owner GTI, held during PACK EXPO Connects, covering cannabis logistics, regulations, packaging equipment acquisition, pack design, and a lot more. Visit pwgoto/5984 to watch.
Secondary push-pack cartons
Following filling, each cone is weighed to ensure it’s precisely 0.5 g per cone. Then, these are hand-packed into either the five-pack push-pack carton (2.5 g total) or the two-pack J-tube (1.0 g total).
The push-pack carton is custom made for 1620 Labs by Custom Cones. It consists of a heavy-duty paperboard inner tray (at 2 mm thickness as taken with a caliper), complete with lighter paperboard insert to cradle each of the five pre-rolls and prevent movement within the tray. The inner tray slides into a thinner paperboard outer sleeve, and “clicks” into place. Tested and certified to be tamper proof and child resistant, custom push packs provide all related regulatory compliance for 1620 Labs. The back of the pack features a discrete, rubberized (silicon) push-button tab that the consumer pushes down to unlock and then slides under the outer paperboard jacket to slide the tray from its jacket. The silicon feature adds tactile assurance for the thumb. Watch a brief video on how the mechanism works at pwgo.to/5859.
“You just depress it slightly and you slide it with your thumb in one motion,” says Lance. “It’s a really nice design.”
The entire pack is made of sturdy, recyclable paperboard that the company says is a more sustainable packaging option than its first-generation plastic cartons. Important for start-ups in cannabis packaging, Custom Cones offers a MOQ as low as 500 to 1000, depending on the level of customization.
The J-tubes are packed with the same product, just two instead of five. They fit together into the tube as inverse but corresponding shapes, one filter-side down, the other filter-side up, and the certified child-resistant tube closure clicks close.
Both the cartons and the J-tubes are then shrink-wrap sealed, both for freshness and to fully enclose packs. The push-pack cartons use a transparent film to let the design show through, while the J-tubes use a printed film containing branding, logos, and more information about the product.
Both package varieties are hand packed into corrugated, marked with information generated from metrc software for seed-to-sale data (more on that a little later), and manually taped closed with anti-tampering tape. Logistics and delivery to retailers occurs thereafter.
Packaging design collaboration
Not yet mentioned, but absolutely key in both staying in compliance with the law and communicating accurate information to the retailer and end consumer, labeling is a crucial step in 1620 Labs’ packaging process.
The precise placement of the artwork that goes on the cartons, and considerations regarding placement of legally required label identifiers, plus regulations indicating what needs to be visible and where, are considerations capable of vexing the most experienced CPGs. But like many start-up cannabis producers, 1620 Labs didn’t have a team of package designers awash with pack design best practices available to it. Custom Cones was able to offer experience in that manner.
“The entire cannabinol profile [THC/CBD content, and varietal of indica, sativa, or hybrid] of flower is on each label, plus the batch number, the packing date, expiration date, and so on,” Lance says. “Part of what Custom Cones helped us with was the sizing. We knew we needed a certain label with a certain font that we have to print out every time we grow it, and it has to fit on the pack somewhere. And there’s a lot of information on the pack and on the tube. Plus we needed to include our branding and our color scheme, and we had all that stuff figured out, but they helped us manipulate where it would fit and what size, shapes.”
The plain white pressure sensitive labels are currently printed on a simple office inkjet printer and manually applied. In a first go-around with this packaging system, how the labels fit on the packs, and what they potentially obscured on the secondary packaging underneath, was an issue. Finding the right real estate without covering up logos or other important information was a problem. A more recent iteration of packaging accounts for this and standardizes label size and location on both the push-packs and J-tubes.
“A lot of what’s on the label is lab-determined,” Lance says. What he means is that some label information, THC content, for instance, is dependent on lab measurements that reflect natural fluctuations from marijuana plant to marijuana plant, and harvest to harvest. Also, the company uses a software system, called metrc, that is designed to monitor a safe and legal seed-to-sale supply chain. This non-consumer-facing track and trace meta-information allows complete visibility of every pre-roll, all the way back to the plant that grew the flower.
“The cultivators basically track weight, but the dispensaries like to have us adapt that weight into units, into actual round numbers of products instead of weights,” Lance says.
For instance, in the case of 1620 Labs’ J-tubes, operators pack the tubes by the hundred, 113 per shipper to be precise. That’s because 113 J-tube packs is the individual package equivalent to the weight that 1620 Labs tracks on the cultivator side. But all of this information, and the conversions from weights of flower to numbers of individual packs or SKUs, is constantly tracked in the metrc system. And all of that is printed onto a label on the shipping case, so the retailers also have the numbers they’re used to dealing with. Backward conversions to weights are readily available, and batch and lot numbers follow each pack through the entire chain.
Resulting pack system
The result was a design collaboration between graphic designers at 1620 Labs—the company already had an established logo and brand cues when it first sought packaging—and the knowledgeable team at Custom Cones, who with an eye for regulations and how they affect pack design, had ushered more than one cannabis brand across the start-up finish line.
“We have someone on staff who was responsible for a really elegant design and branding creation, and we wanted to be sure that shone through,” Carroll says. “But her design was sent to Custom Cones and they turned it into the packaging that we needed. To have a company that helped us out with all that packaging design work, created the proofs and worked with us on all the necessary labeling, was super helpful and a huge reason why we chose Custom Cones.”