Cannabis more accessible: lessons from the alcohol industry


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We are at a point in American history where cannabis is thoroughly mainstream, although it is still illegal at the federal level. Not just a cultural mainstay for music and films, today we see cannabis-based products lining the shelves of wellness shops, grocery stores and makeup counters. Chefs and celebrities host cannabis-infused dinners for their famous friends. Even Martha Stewart, a household goddess known for living a neat and tidy life, is an outspoken cannabis connoisseur who has her own award-winning line of CBD products.

In the same way alcohol transitioned from the pub to Main Street, cannabis is cultivating its new place in modern culture. Not surprisingly, there are compelling parallels between the rise of modern cannabis use and the reemergence and growth of alcoholic beverages since the Prohibition years. Alcohol consumption is widespread today and integrated into many areas of life. In fact, according to the most recent federal health statistics, the average American consumes nearly 500 drinks per year, or about nine per week per person. Like alcohol, cannabis is on its own unique journey – from a sketchy stoner habit to an everyday tool used by people from all walks of life.

The reasons for alcohol’s entry into the mainstream are varied and complex. However, viewed as proxies for the normalization of cannabis, there are three key areas of focus that the cannabis industry should be aware of that have helped make the alcohol industry the global juggernaut it is today: offering more variety of formats, promoting more variety consumer opportunities and consumer expectations for a responsible experience.

First, let’s explore the importance of diversity and options in expanding alcohol appreciation and normalization. Consider the range of spirits, from cheap spirit blends to premium spirits, from unflavored vodkas to flavorful gins, from unaged rum to whiskeys aged for decades. Today, consumers have access to numerous spirits categories across multiple groups and at a variety of price points, ensuring that there is a product for almost every need.

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Format differentiation is also central to the growth of the cannabis category, as the multiple ways in which cannabis can appeal to people’s wants and needs are growing at a rapid pace. The culture of cannabis prohibition kept inventive options under wraps and in many ways closed cannabis to those potentially interested. But that’s changing fast. For example, we are seeing more interest in concentrates (e.g. vapes). In fact, even in 2018, concentrates were the fastest-growing cannabis category — passing by in terms of sales expansion, according to BDSA’s findings. Beverages are beginning to take off as companies figure out how to scale production and consumers discover the potential that hangover-free cannabis drinks offer.

Formats aside, cannabis is also uniquely able to serve a variety of functions and uses on multiple occasions throughout the day, something the alcohol industry cannot match. While alcohol can position itself on a variety of occasions, it is still limited – mainly socially and predominantly at night, as solo and/or daytime drinking are generally not socially acceptable. More importantly, each alcohol functionally does the same thing. When you drink it, you usually feel some type of effect. However, cannabis goes well beyond the realm of the high of recreational use.

Cannabis affects people in different ways – it’s social and it’s individual. Ongoing innovation will only help consumers further define and redefine their relationship with this category. Much like alcohol consumption norms have evolved with new entrants creating contemporary ways to use the product, the lifestyle and culture of cannabis is rapidly evolving. More than just smoking to get high or to manage an ongoing medical condition, there is an incredible opportunity for consumers to use cannabis products in unique ways, e.g. B. to adjust their mood.

Finally, bringing new audiences to experience cannabis revolves around introductory education and the reliability of cannabis products. There is a need to create consistency, predictability and control with dosing standards. Think alcohol again—we know how to define a serving. That’s no coincidence – a beer, a glass of wine and a cocktail have the same amount of alcohol. This allows the user to control their experience as they know what is in the drink and what it is doing to them. However, when it comes to cannabis, dosage is ubiquitous. So the answer seems clear: across formats, we must try to reduce the fear of effects by standardizing dosing and educating the end user. We often hear “everyone has an edible story”; We must work together to make this a thing of the past.

As we approach the potential for federal legalization of cannabis, it is of paramount importance that the future of cannabis is not only seen through the lens of the traditional or legacy consumer, but is reimagined through the lens of those who are simply making their living live and want to improve their daily experiences. In our increasingly inclusive cannabis culture, there is room for everyone and everyone. For more insights into what that future may look like, see my previous article here.