If the tobacco, liquor and food industries are coming under threat from the World Health Organisation and the plain packaging lobby, then the burgeoning cannabis industry in the US is taking no heed, with new brands being launched every day.

And rather than using the ‘stoner’ imagery of Cheech and Chong, Rastafari colours and vast spluttering spliffs, many of these new cannabis brands are going into the sophisticated, upscale, luxury sector space that is being vacated by cigarettes and (potentially) premium alcohol.

Take ‘Hamptons Reserve’ from Future Farm, which boasts of being a “leading cannabis brand for sophisticated consumers who want only the best in terms of taste and purity.”

Then there’s ‘Toast’, a cannabis cigarette launched earlier this year and similarly posh, promising to be a “luxury lifestyle brand for adults who smoke marijuana socially, the way cocktail-party guests sip mojitos”, and ‘No. 420’, inspired by “classic brands like Chanel No. 5 or Porsche 911” while containing the nudge-nudge cannabis code number, 420.

One can see how these products all go seamlessly into the upscale cannabis parties that are springing up across Colorado and California – and also how they’d pre-occupy the ‘connoisseur consumer’, in search of premium leisure and lifestyle products and left bereft of these defining experiences by the ‘brandalism’ of the WHO and its ilk.

Indeed, Toast, which launched in February, boasts of the “Art Deco styling of the 1920s, with the brand name and other details highlighted in metallic gold”. It’s exactly the kind of marketing brief that an upmarket cigarette brand like Dunhill would once have had.

It’s a boost for the new industry in a year that some analysts believe will be cannabis’ ‘breakout year’: with cannabis is legal for recreational or medicinal use in no fewer than 28 states. And lots of money (‘Weedstock’) is pouring into it.

But there’s another factor, which is that just as the WHO seeks to expand its plain packaging agenda across the world – Indonesia and India as well as the developed and western states of Australia, the UK and France – cannabis branding and marketing is, to coin a phrase, on fire. The identification with brands is a human need.

And there’s an odd dimension to the story, too. In the US, cannabis is still illegal on a federal level, and therefore cannabis products are unable to be trademarked. Which means that those fiendishly clever designers and branding people get around these federal constraints by slapping logos and branding on merchandise, rather than the intoxicating core product – because T-shirts, bags, fridge magnets et al fall outside the trademarking restrictions. So you’re free to buy a hat bearing the big cannabis brand Hi (get it?).

There’s a simple reason, says David Tobias, president of the public Cannabis Sativa company, which produces Hi: “You have to dance around [the legislation]”. And, unless we want to lie in an authoritarian world, that’s precisely what designers and marketing managers will do with all plain packaging.

Which really make us wonder: apart from moral grandstanding, what’s the point?

by Robert Hope