As talks revolving around the federal legalization of cannabis splinter in Congress, the question of whether the nascent industry can eat beverage alcohol’s margins remains a growing one.
In a report, titled, “Is Cannabis a Threat to Alcohol Sales?” BDSA Consumer Insights contends that while the crop is as popular as ever, any real breakthrough of consumer participation in adult-use and medical markets remains stymied in D.C. – casualties of political animosity and procedural acrobatics aimed at slowing progress.
Consumption Is High
“In just a few short years, attitudes towards cannabis across the country have shifted rapidly, with the share of those who have “bought-in” to cannabis consumption skyrocketing while fewer and fewer report not being open to consuming cannabis,” the report said.
BDS Analytics data showed that this past Spring, 51% of Americans in adult-use states claim to have consumed cannabis in the past six months, up 15% from Spring 2020. At the same time, the share who claim to be rejecters (non-consumers who are not open to consuming in the future) fell from 31% in Spring 2020 to just 23% in Spring 2022.
Overall consumer participation is lower in medical markets, yet BDS Analytics data suggest that consumer participation is growing at a similar rate.
The share of those who report past six-month consumption ballooned from just 26% to 41% between Spring 2020 and Spring 2022 – as the share of rejecters fell from 34% to 28% over that same period.
These realities have left many companies considering what they can learn from the alcohol industry — or how they can partner — as it continues to languish within its own prohibition.
“When we look deeper into the data, we see a cannabis consumer base that is knowledgeable, open to trying new product formats, and willing to experiment with incorporating cannabis consumption into more occasions throughout their lives,” the report said.
Stacking up to Big Alc
While consumer usage rates are starting to near beverage alcohol levels, experts generally agree that significant cannibalization of alcohol by cannabis would likely only occur over the course of at least another generation.
“While the trend toward alcohol’s displacement by cannabis is a durable one, especially among young adults, it is likely going to be a generational one, rather than one manifested in the next few years,” BDS Analytics Andy Seeger said. “Furthermore, it is expected that growing social acceptance will both increase substitutability and strengthen public preferences for cannabis over alcohol, though not completely dissuade cannabis consumers from drinking.”
Together, U.S. legal and illicit sales have been estimated to be $97 billion in 2021 – edging out against $87 million in spirit sales. Demand for cannabis in the U.S. now exceeds what the nation annually spends on spirits – and roughly matching what it spends on beer – according to a report by New Frontier Data.
Two-thirds of cannabis consumers surveyed by New Frontier said that they drink alcohol at least once per month, but 61% say that given a choice, they prefer cannabis.
Additionally, one-third of respondents said that they would like to quit drinking alcohol altogether, “though it is likely that the significant difference in social acceptability between alcohol and cannabis makes it more difficult to stop drinking entirely,” New Frontier wrote.
In another study, Colorado households – compared to all other states that did not legalize recreational cannabis – showed a 13% average monthly decrease in purchases of all alcoholic products combined and a 6% decrease in wine, according to a July 2021 report published in the Journal of Cannabis Research.
However, complicating the idea that cannabis will hurt alcohol sales, researchers’ findings showed that Washington saw an increase in spirits purchased while Oregon showed a significant decrease in monthly spirits purchased when compared to all other states without legalized recreational cannabis.
The conclusion was that the results “suggest that alcohol and cannabis are not clearly substituted nor complements to one another.”
“Future studies should examine additional states as more time passes and more post-legalization data becomes available, use cannabis purchase data and consider additional methods for control selection in quasi-experimental studies,” it said.
Shifting the culture (through regulatory action)
While the nature of cannabis consumption typically resides within the home, finding margins outside of those living spaces has been an ongoing challenge that has frustrated entrepreneurs in the space.
Those who consume are consuming more often as consumers are pairing cannabis with alcohol and a variety of activities, BDS Analytics said in its report – though the lack of a three-tier system and on-premise regulation prevents cannabis companies from creating social hubs with experiences tied to their product.
“There is very, very little on-premise spending right now, which does add the margin,” Seeger said. “And that’s one of the things that the market, in general, is fighting right now – is a way to find margin. Those kinds of occasions would do that. That’s certainly what we see in beverage alcohol.”
According to BDS Analytics, the share of consumers in adult-use markets who report pairing cannabis with spirits or liquor rose from 12% in Spring 2018 to 22% in Spring 2022, while the share who report cannabis with cocktails doubled to a total of 20% in Spring 2022.
Additionally, BDS Analytics found that consumers are increasingly pairing cannabis with activities not typically associated with cannabis.
The share of consumers in adult-use markets claiming that they pair cannabis with fine dining rose from 14% in Spring 2020 to 25% in Spring 2022, while the share of those who report using cannabis while exercising rose from 18% in Spring 2020 to 26% in Spring 2022.
“While these increases may not seem shocking to savvy industry insiders, they demonstrate that the use occasions for cannabis are incredibly varied,” the report said. “They also show opportunity for brands that can produce product with form factors and targeted formulations that speak to these varied need states and use occasions.”
Innovations in rapid-onset technology help push cannabis-infused, non-alcoholic beverage products to create a standard beverage serving of Delta-9 THC, such as Keith Villa’s non-alcoholic, cannabis-infused, Belgian-style ale — Ceria Brewing Co. — which sold out in Colorado dispensaries four hours after it’s release; or corona importer Constellation Brands multi-billion dollar investments in Canopy Growth.
Alcohol Meets Cannabis
More recently, distributing partnerships between cannabis companies and the alcohol industry are sprouting.
Fresh Hemp Foods, a part of Tilray’s Wellness (NASDAQ: TLRY) division, signed a distribution agreement on Wednesday with Southern Glazer’s Wine & Spirits — one of the nation’s largest distributors of wine and spirits.
The pact will provide Tilray Wellness with direct access to the alcohol distributor’s network, “reaching consumers everywhere from local bars and restaurants to independent and national grocery chains and convenience stores.”
“This agreement helps Tilray uniquely position itself to enter the multi-billion-dollar adult beverage category with a non-alcoholic, CBD beverage alternative, for consumers who want to relax and unwind,” said Tilray Wellness and Fresh Hemp Foods president Jared Simon.
The agreement allows Tilray to develop a U.S. CBD beverage portfolio within retail channels, “which will transition the category out of the fringe and into the mainstream,” the company said.
“Cannatourism” and the brewery model
Currently, marketing cannabis products toward specific experiential outcomes are limited without a legal framework.
Despite that, the industry has found creative ways to circumvent some of these limitations — even finding parallels with the brewery model.
Operators can establish deeper relationships with customers as people travel to and within states where cannabis is legal to visit the farms where the product is grown, similar to visiting wineries — also known as “cannatourism”.
“It’s a really big opportunity for states that have legalized cannabis to capitalize on that, not just for their own residents but also for tourists that might travel particularly for that,” said Christina Sava, an attorney at Troutman Pepper.
Other services help people find “Bud and Breakfast” spots — onsite consumption lounges in adult-use states such as a 420-friendly bed and breakfast type hotel.
“We kind of take it for granted that you can consume alcohol in entertainment venues and at bars and at restaurants,” Sava said, “but there really aren’t that many sanctioned spaces outside the home to try cannabis and share cannabis with your friends. I think this is an area that is ripe for evolution and will continue to grow.”