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Pharm to Table: the New American Norm

Chris Jones headshot
Christopher Jones / Aug 28, 2020
How the COVID-19 Crisis Is Driving Cannabis Edibles into the Mainstream.

In times of crisis, there are no easy answers to the uncertainty and anxiety that most of us experience on a daily basis. So when the coronavirus hit the U.S. full force in March, part of the solution for many Americans was reaching for a psychoactive chemical crutch — whether pharmaceutical, alcohol, or cannabis — to help them through the day and night.

For an increasing number, cannabis-infused edible products have become the crutch of choice. Drop into most retail cannabis shops, and the menu is stacked with sugary treats that would make Willy Wonka blush — gummies, cookies, weed-infused sodas, and a smorgasbord of other goodies that will calm your nerves at low doses — and might launch you into outer space at higher doses.

Shortly after the pandemic hit the U.S., the analytics firm Headset reported that the edibles category jumped 11% in Colorado, Washington, California and Nevada. These include both CBD- and THC-only edibles as well as blends of the two. In 2020, retail sales of cannabis products in the U.S. are on pace to eclipse $15 billion, an increase of approximately 40% over 2019 sales, according to the Marijuana Business Factbook.

That remarkable rise wasn’t guaranteed. In the early days of the pandemic, the big question in the cannabis industry was whether dispensaries and adult-use stores would be allowed to stay open. When they were deemed an “essential business” by states from coast to coast, the industry got an unexpected boost, and an important validation moving forward.

For edibles manufacturers, the bigger question now is: will this newfound legitimacy be a tipping point that propels weed-infused treats into mainstream American culture? Hot dogs, apple pie, and…loaded gummies?

The Edibles Advantage

The pandemic hasn’t been a boon for all aspects of the cannabis industry. Sellers of smokable “flowers,” vape pens and extract are in a sticky position because of the devastating impact that COVID-19 has on the lungs.

“Community has always been central to cannabis culture, but given the health crisis we find ourselves in, it is best we think of community a little differently,” said Erik Altieri, the executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), in a March blog post. “Further, because COVID-19 is a respiratory illness, some of you may wish to limit or avoid their exposure to combustive smoke — as this can put undue stress and strain on the lungs.”

When the head of NORML starts blogging about the potential dangers of smoking weed, you know the world is having an upside-down moment.

While the legal edibles market is still relatively new, it has been around long enough for certain brands to gain consumer trust. It appears that these increasingly recognizable brands are gaining the most from new public interest. As we’ve seen with food brands, in uncertain times consumers are more likely to buy products they are familiar with.

“In times of crisis like this, people tend to stick to tried and true brands and products that they know, and it tends not to be a time of experimentation,” says Nancy Whiteman, CEO of Wana Brands, one of the biggest edibles companies in the U.S. “In tough times, when people have limited amounts of money, they also want to know that they’re spending their money wisely.”

Wana has seen a rise in its edibles sales during the pandemic, and recently launched a new product, “Quick Onset Gummies,” which take effect in five to ten minutes and last about three hours.

One of the unique aspects of edibles, vis-à-vis other cannabis products, is that they are appealing for both newbies and veteran users alike, particularly as more and more inventive, tasty, and health-conscious products hit the market. Edibles are also discreet, and don’t carry the same stigma as flowers and extracts. Sparking up a joint is still considered taboo behavior in most of the U.S., while snacking on candy is a treasured national pastime, for young and old folks alike.

In a study conducted this summer, Verilife reports that 18% of millennials and 14% baby boomers prefer edibles over any other form of cannabis products.

During the pandemic, 44% of baby boomers and 36% of millennials said they are consuming more cannabis, and spending an average of $27 more per month on products.

  • 44%

    Baby Boomers consuming more cannabis

  • 36%

    Millennials consuming more cannabis

Some of the reasons for the increase are obvious – people want to relax, tune out, have a laugh. But there are other, more subtle motives as well.

One New York dad we interviewed recently explained that the THC gummy stash he procured on a recent trip to California had become his most prized possession. Locked down with his wife and young son in a small Washington Heights apartment, the gummies are his daily escape, and put him in the right mindset at certain points throughout the day.

“It makes bedtime so much easier,” he said. Surprisingly, he wasn’t talking about his own ability to sleep. “My son is crazy before bedtime, and it’s been hard to get him to sleep lately. So, the gummies help me stay calm and patient with him.”

Another seemingly simple reason people have turned to edibles during the crisis is that they deliver a consistent experience and effect. We take this for granted with most other products we buy, be it food, liquor, or pharmaceutical drugs. Flowers and extracts, by contrast, often vary considerably in their overall effect and impact – a result of the complex mix of cannabinoids and terpenes that can vary from batch to batch – and a few tokes of today’s icky-sticky, high-THC bud can mightily alter your reality. That said, both the stimulating effects of CBT and the more diverse psychoactive impacts of THC have different effects on different people even when imbibed through slower acting edibles.

hand reaching for cannabis gummies on a table

Edibles also deliver an impressive bang for the buck. Research firm BDS Analytics estimates that almost half of the edibles market is gummies, and reports that the pandemic has accelerated those sales significantly. Since most gummies cost about $20 for a package of ten candies and 100mg of THC, they’re a no-brainer for budget buyers.

While consumers are generally a fickle bunch when it comes to cannabis products – experimenting and trying out new products and brands on a whim – it looks like people are developing a sweet tooth for gummies and other edibles that will persist well after the crisis is behind us.

The End of Prohibition?

While 2020 will be remembered as a momentous year for an industry that has struggled for decades to earn legitimacy, the bigger question is whether it will provide enough momentum to convince politicians to legalize cannabis at the federal level, ending 100 years of prohibition.

Before the pandemic hit, there were at least 18 states that were poised to legalize cannabis to some degree, and even as priorities have shifted to the public health crisis, there are still as many as seven states that will have the opportunity to vote for medical or adult-use legalization in November. And as every state looks to replenish budgets crippled by the pandemic, there may be an added urgency to seek new sources of tax revenue.

When Gov. Andrew Cuomo was asked during a coronavirus update briefing why the state hasn’t legalized cannabis as a means of boosting tax revenues, he said, “I support legalization of marijuana passage. I’ve worked very hard to pass it…I believe we will, but we didn’t get it done this last session because it’s a complicated issue and it has to be done in a comprehensive way.”

I support legalization of marijuana passage. I’ve worked very hard to pass it…I believe we will, but we didn’t get it done this last session because it’s a complicated issue and it has to be done in a comprehensive way.

Andrew Cuomo

Governor of New York State

The significance of New York giving a green light to adult-use cannabis cannot be overstated. When the industry has a firm foothold on both coasts, with lucrative legal markets in California and New York, there will be growing pressure from consumers, industry operators and both liberal and free market politicians to legalize the business on the federal level.

Given how close we are to this very scenario, it’s no wonder that cannabis operators are optimistic that federal legalization is now well within reach. As that day approaches, the edibles industry is ramping up production, convinced that mainstream American consumers will soon see these products as a go-to remedy for stress, sleeplessness, and other ailments.

About the Author:

Christopher Jones has been reporting on science, technology, cannabis and the drug war since the mid ‘90s. As the Technology Editor at Wired News, he helped launch and develop one of the first news sites on the Web. As a cannabis consultant, he helped businesses across the U.S. win licenses to start cultivation, manufacturing, and retail operations. For the last 5 years he has been chronicling the legalization of cannabis in America and telling the stories of the farmers, activists and entrepreneurs who have dedicated their lives and careers to the plant.