Cannabis More Accessible: Lessons Learned From the Alcohol Industry - Rolling Stone
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Making Cannabis More Accessible: Lessons Learned From the Alcohol Industry

In the same way that alcohol transitioned from the speakeasy to Main Street, cannabis is cultivating its new space in modern culture.

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We are at a moment in American history where cannabis is thoroughly mainstream, despite still being federally illegal. Not just a cultural mainstay for music and movies, today we see cannabis-based products punctuate 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 domestic goddess known for prim and proper living, is a vocal cannabis connoisseur who has her own, award-winning line of CBD products.

In the same way that alcohol transitioned from the speakeasy to Main Street, cannabis is cultivating its new space in modern culture. Not surprisingly, there are compelling parallels between the rise of modern cannabis consumption and how alcoholic beverages have re-emerged and grown since the Prohibition years. Alcohol usage today is widely embraced and incorporated into many walks of life. In fact, according to recent federal health statistics, the average American now 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 those from all walks of life.

The reasons for alcohol’s move to the mainstream are vast and complex. However, when viewed as a proxy of cannabis normalization, there are three key focus areas that the cannabis industry should be aware of that helped propel the alcohol industry into the global juggernaut that it is today: offering greater format variety, encouraging more diverse usage occasions and setting consumer expectations for a responsible experience.

First, let’s explore the importance of variety and options in expanding appreciation and normalization of alcohol. Consider the range of spirits offerings, from cheap, blended spirits to high-end liquors, from flavorless vodkas to flavorful gins, from unaged rums to decades-aged whiskies. Nowadays, consumers have access to numerous categories of spirits in multiple groups and at a wide variety of price points, ensuring there is a product to suit almost every desire.

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Format differentiation is also central to the growth of the cannabis category, with the numerous ways cannabis can address people’s wants and needs increasing at a breakneck pace. The culture of cannabis prohibition kept a tight lid on inventive options, and in many ways closed off cannabis to those potentially interested. But that is rapidly changing. For example, we’re seeing greater interest in concentrates (e.g., vapes). In fact, even back in 2018, concentrates were the fastest-growing cannabis category — passing flower in terms of sales expansion, according to findings from BDSA. Beverages are starting to make inroads as companies figure out how to scale production and consumers discover the potential presented by no hangover cannabis drinks.

Beyond formats, cannabis is also uniquely able to offer a variety of functions and uses on multiple occasions throughout the day, something the alcohol industry can’t match. While alcohol can position itself on different occasions, it’s still limited — primarily social and predominately at night, as solo and/or day-drinking aren’t generally socially acceptable. More importantly, all alcohol does the same thing functionally. You drink it, you typically feel one type of effect. However, cannabis extends far beyond the realm of the buzz of recreational consumption.

Cannabis impacts people in different ways — it is social and it is individual. Ongoing innovations will only help consumers further define and redefine their relationships with the category. Similar to how alcohol drinking norms evolved with new participants creating contemporary ways to use the product, the lifestyle and culture of cannabis are rapidly evolving. More than just smoking to get high or to manage an ongoing medical issue, there is an incredible opportunity for consumers to leverage cannabis products in unique ways, such as to tailor their mood.

Finally, ushering in new audiences to experience cannabis centers around entry-point education and the reliability of cannabis products. There is a need to create consistency, predictability and control with dosing standards. Again, think about alcohol — we know how to define a serving. This is not by accident — a beer, a glass of wine and a cocktail have the same amount of alcohol. This allows the user to control their experience because they know what’s in the drink and what it does to them. However, in cannabis, dosing is all over the place. So, the answer seems clear: Across formats, we must seek to alleviate the fear of effects by standardizing dosage and educating the end consumer. We often hear “everyone has an edible story;” we need to work together to make this a thing of the past.

As we near the potential for federal cannabis legalization, it is paramount that the future of cannabis is not just seen through the lens of the traditional or legacy consumer, but reimagined through the lens of those seeking to simply live their lives and improve their daily experiences. There is a place for anyone and everyone in our increasingly inclusive cannabis culture. For more insight into what this future can look like, check out my previous article here.

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