Notebook of James Kennedy

Thoughts on design, marketing, branding, starting web based business models, community development online and off.

Making illegal drug packaging more eco-friendly.

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A recent excerpt:

CITY MAY BAN SMALL BAGS USED FOR DRUGS: Tiny plastic bags used to sell
small quantities of heroin, crack cocaine, marijuana and other drugs
would be banned in Chicago, under a crackdown advanced Tuesday by a City
Council committee. Ald. Robert Fioretti (2nd) persuaded the Health
Committee to ban possession of “self-sealing plastic bags under two
inches in either height or width,” after picking up 15 of the bags on a
recent Sunday afternoon stroll through a West Side park.

full story

What an excellent snap-shot of the war on drugs. For all of the drug dealers out there who are struggling to find ways to continue on with business, please reference this video on creating a “bindle”.

This approach has it’s advantages, and obvious disadvantages. On the one hand this traditional approach to drug packaging shows a level of craft and handmade quality, which we will touch on later. From a user standpoint–though the bindle wrap has it’s unique charm–it lacks the user friendly interface of the small plastic bag. The approach also requires an increased level of labor from the dealer’s standpoint, increasing costs, which would likely result in a reduced weight or quality instead of deterring from the standard 20$ price point of packs this size. But these of course are not the only options. The lack of integrity and concern for the “user experience” within the drug market is truly astonishing. There are many distinct markets that the drug trade reaches, but for the purpose of this article we would like to focus on the middle to upper class, 18-34 year old clientele.

Let us start by better defining this market:

This user is college educated or has some level of secondary education. Though they may be on a tight budget, they still have a certain level of disposable income. They understand drugs are “illegal” and likely have a basic to strong knowledge of drug laws within their locale. They do not consider themselves “addicts”, they feel they have a strong grasp on reality and the drugs are often used in a social or open environment. Drug usage is something they feel they will grow out of, with the onset of maturity.

The primary concern for this individual when securing a purchase is quality. Quality is not necessarily a reference to potency, but more of a nod to cleanliness, meaning that the drug has been minimally “stepped on”, or mixed with other harsh chemicals. Generally these purer forms of the drug will result in a higher level of potency, or at least a perceived level of potency. You will often find a young, health conscious user that eats a strictly organic diet, does not consume “processed foods” but has little to no knowledge of the secondary compounds in their drugs. These still very well may be concerns, but without access to this information the approach becomes “hope for the best”. This brings us to the over-riding theme of trust with the dealer.

The bond of trust with the dealer is three fold. The user must confide in the fact that they are not being charged unfair prices, they must be assured that what they are receiving is as safe as usage of the drug dictates, and they must be confident that the dealer is using all possible avenues to insure that the transaction takes place unhindered by any law enforcement agents. It is rare to see this savvy user making purchases on the street corner from an unknown dealer, they generally have a friendly relationship where the dealer is confident in the user’s credibility and vice versa. These transactions take place in the safety of their homes, the dealer’s place of residence or in the dealer’s vehicle.

When looking at these factors: an intelligent consumer(the term intelligent can only be stretched so far when referencing the procurement of illegal substances), the need for discretion, and a desire by both parties for a level of transparency; it is surprising to see that such little concern is put into the actual packaging of these products. The standard small, zip-loc plastic bag is synonymous with illegal drugs, that and storing small buttons that come with clothing. Regardless of whether the small bag contains drugs or small buttons, the sight of this raises suspicion. Having the remnants of the past weekend come out of a pocket while trying to reach for a business card is a proposition that strikes fear in the mind of the user. There is no available explanation, there is no room for interpretation, a small plastic bag carries much weight. A well executed approach to product packaging can solve many of these issues. It requires additional effort on the part of the dealer, but what is achieved is a strong and lasting brand loyalty that will reflect not only in the bulge of cash under the mattress, but also in the ability to conduct business further from the reaches of the law.

Discretion, Identity, Surprise.

One of the more successful approaches to drug packaging was the usage of the small chiclet boxes. These small boxes that contain two dime sized pieces of gum were the secondary packaging for a 20$ bag of cocaine. The box was carefully opened, 1 piece of gum was removed and the zip-loc bag was inserted. The box was then resealed with a small piece of double-stick tape, making it impossible to discern a standard pack of gum from an “enhanced” pack of chiclets. Discretion. Code is important when dealing with drugs, the reference to “how many packs of chiclets” was safe enough to use over the phone, and also possessed a certain level of charm. It doesn’t hurt that “chiclet” is already a slang term for cocaine. As with any code, the system must be updated and changed or it changes from a code to public knowledge. Such was the case with the chiclets and New York City police. Still, a strong method of creating Identity. As I previously mentioned, only one piece of gum was removed from the pack, leaving the other. This not only helped to mask the package, it also left the user with a perfectly fine piece of gum. Surprise.

The intangible element that resonates most strongly with the chiclets case-study is the level of playfulness that was added to an otherwise sordid exchange. Designing an experience, not only a result. Experiential Design, this is common in main-stream marketing these days, but like many successful elements of marketing, lost on the illegal drug trade. That is what recreational drug use is all about, right? The overall experience. But why don’t we see this more often?

Yes, I know that this article is titled “making illegal drug packaging more eco-friendly”, and that is to come. Check back for some practical solutions.


Written by jamesk256

March 10, 2008 at 7:22 pm

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