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The glint of foil and brightly colored packaging stands out among the street gunk one normally encounters along the sidewalks and gutters of Philadelphia.
It’s a relatively new kind of litter for the city: disposable bags for holding pocket-sized amounts of cannabis.
Just as craft beer companies make a lot of effort to create unique identities through label design, weed packaging now must stand out. Medical marijuana dispensaries and boutiques have begun to proliferate around the region, carrying products that cater to a variety of personalities and tastes.
These heavily branded, single-use containers inevitably end up left behind wherever people congregate for fun. The odor-proofing baked into the bags makes them durable, able to withstand rain or dirt.
Once you start noticing them, you’ll see them in nearly every neighborhood in Philadelphia.
Many of the pocket-sized bags come from growers on the West Coast, where cannabis is legal, and weed is grown by increasingly professional enterprises. It’s a competitive market, and consistent design and layout can help differentiate one brand from another.
Custom printing cellophane bags is a growing industry, and you don’t have to be an official cannabis retailer to order them. Small-time dealers sometimes commission their own to add prestige to cheaper bud — kind of like wearing a knockoff Rolex.
With recreational cannabis still illegal in the Commonwealth, and guidelines around advertising and marketing are strict, guerilla bags appear on Philadelphia streets as frequently as packaging with authentic manufacturer marks.
These designs are often far more interesting, featuring trademark-infringing cartoon characters, celebrities, spoof brands, or creative artwork built around well-known strain names.
Since November of 2020, I’ve been collecting these bags wherever I go.
As an architectural historian, my eyes are drawn to details on the ground as quickly as they’re drawn to sculptural terra cotta on Frank Furness’ buildings. Whoever was supposed to tell me as a child not to pick up things off the ground must have forgotten.I think of bag collecting as a personal, endless scavenger hunt.
My collection, now available to view online, comprises the bags I’ve collected in Philadelphia, Atlantic City, and New York, as well as those donated by others who share in their intrigue.
Bag design is varied, but gather enough together and themes emerge.
‘Backwoods’ bags/cartoon characters
Cigar manufacturer Backwoods has become a popular brand in recent years for streetwear apparel knock-offs.
In addition to the Rick and Morty bag above, I’ve found four different bootleg takes on official Backwoods packaging.
The use of “Bootleg Bart” in t-shirts has its own long history as well.
Twisted Joker weed
This twisted Batman Villain is a favorite for bootleg cannabis packaging. I am still waiting to find a Joker bag featuring Jack Nicholson or Cesar Romero, though.
Pastels and neon
Many bags, especially those grown by legal operations, favor vibrant color gradients and intricate abstract designs.
These give off an air of sophistication that can’t be found in stealing trademarked cartoon characters. I love the different color gradients used in the two bags from Flavors.
My favorite bags are the ones that play on recognizable brands or objects, with skilled designers making the copycatting seem almost effortless.
For example, recognizable trope from Sour Patch Kids packaging carefully recreated in its own way for “Stoner Patch Dummies.”
But the mis-aligned graphics and questionable font choices in Craft Wax & Trees are just as interesting to me. And the bag is thoroughly creative in its own ways — there’s a view hole to show off the presumably high quality cannabis contained within.
Somewhere between Bootleg and Brand are my favorite bags, the ones that come from Pressure, a designer of odor proof disposable packaging.
These bags straddle the line with carefully-executed designs that play with recognizable forms, like Gushers or Scooby-Doo, but succeed fully in being their own thing.
Scroll down for some more of my personal favorites. Keep your eyes to the ground and you might find something interesting, too!