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Security holograms in the fight against cannabis anti-counterfeiting

Dr Paul Dunn, chair of the International Hologram Manufacturers Association, considers how security holograms play an effective role in protecting cannabis products in the fight against counterfeiting.

With reports continuing to swirl of counterfeit cannabis products and the mis-selling of synthetic cannabinoids, the need to protect and authenticate genuine products and packaging remains paramount. In the UK alone, an analysis in 2021 of 37 samples believed to be THC e-liquids used in vapes found that only 26% contained THC or cannabis, while 57% contained some form of synthetic cannabinoid. Even more concerning were reports that cannabis edibles were being sold via social media and made in bulk using packaging bought via e-commerce sites, leading to the hospitalisation of UK school children.

Worrying developments, indeed. So, against such a backdrop and the increasing legalisation of the drug around the world, including across many US states (California’s Bureau of Cannabis Control has proposed requiring dispensaries to display a QR code that, when scanned, provides proof of license), it has to be seen as a priority that regulated cannabis products used for pain relief, relaxation and sleeping disorders, are properly protected and as secure as possible against the threat of criminal counterfeiters. This can only escalate in the coming years as the race to improve production and bring down costs in the face of growing demand for legalised cannabis-derived treatments carves open new opportunities for consumer goods and pharmaceuticals.

Counterfeiting of drugs and healthcare products is already a multi-billion-dollar global problem but the rise in cannabis counterfeiting is an alarming development that sees criminals taking advantage of people who are perhaps desperate for products during the current challenging times and the huge growth in e-commerce and online sales created in the wake of the pandemic as it swept across the globe.

Cannabis packaging must comply with stringent regulatory requirements while retaining eye-catching consumer appeal. The application of security devices to packaging can also ensure quality control and check the distribution and smuggling of illicit products, while those items that fail to display authentication and anti-tamper devices such as holograms, can be quickly seized and destroyed as part of organised anti-smuggling initiatives and law enforcement programmes.

Growing hologram adoption

Today, we are seeing advances in application, film coating and manufacturing technology that are rolling back the boundaries for the use of a new generation of advanced security holograms, facilitating fresh levels of visual effects, brand enhancement, regulatory compliance and anti-counterfeiting. Holograms have long been adopted by the whole swathes of the global healthcare and pharmaceutical industry – the ability of the hologram to provide effective protection lies in its continuous innovation and integration with other technologies to the point where continuous evolution in techniques has succeeded in creating increasingly complex, multi-layered hologram-based devices that are easily recognised yet almost impossible to replicate accurately by criminals.

The evolving role of the hologram has also been accompanied by the increased use of the security device in combination with other authentication technologies. Track and trace solutions identify the origins of a product and verify its authenticity, thus fighting back against counterfeit cannabis. In addition, optical security technology has advanced to such a point that when it’s integrated with track and trace it can provide manufacturers with the tools to be fully compliant with legislation, incorporating beneficial features that can help users generate unique sequential, encrypted or random serial numbers, or identify and mark products overtly or covertly either via special self-adhesive labels or directly onto product packaging using a variety of print technologies.

Holography’s capacity to incorporate other data forms and product tracking information is advantageous as the technology pushes forward and the nature of anti-counterfeiting changes with the times. This provides security holograms with the capacity to be adopted for an expansive range of cannabis authentication and brand protection roles, linking on-pack product identification with supply chain management, market enforcement and forensic support services. In this way, the identity and distribution of goods can be controlled through a total system solution involving security authentication features, tracking mechanisms and investigative services.

Of notable value to the brand owner (and a strong financial incentive to make the investment in such systems) is the fact that the information generated at the labelling stage can be linked to the company’s ERP (enterprise resource planning) system; enabling business functions such as manufacturing, supply chain management, finance, projects, HR and customer relationship management to be captured and better managed.

ISO12931 standard

The use of well-designed and properly deployed authentication solutions, as advocated by the ISO12931 standard, enables examiners to verify the authenticity of a legitimate product, quickly differentiating it from fake products coming from counterfeiting hot spots in Asia and eastern Europe. Even those that carry a ‘fake’ authentication feature can be distinguished from the genuine item if that item carries a carefully thought-out authentication solution.

It’s clear that the rise in cannabis counterfeiting is a big problem and is no different to the increase in fake drugs. However, security holograms are effective weapons in the battle to combat criminals, providing a flexible, quick to deploy visual authentication device that can bolster supply chains and help manufacturers, regulatory authorities, international law enforcement and border customs improve their anti-counterfeiting plans.

The use of track and trace programmes featuring security devices and integrated QR codes are particularly helpful in proving the authenticity of cannabis products and packaging. This can be very reassuring for all involved as well as consumers, confirming products are genuine and safe to use. The time has come for supply chains and authorities to review how they tackle the threat before the situation exacerbates, considering authentication technologies such as readily available holograms that can effectively protect people and secure international distribution channels.

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