Throughout the 2010s, marijuana was on a roll. Dozens of states and a couple of countries legalized it for recreational use; dozens more belatedly allowed medicinal use. VCs circled a fledgling industry that found novel ways to reach for ever more respectability. Estimated sales worldwide looked set to reach $17 billion in 2019, a jump of 38 percent, even as a crisis sparked by knock-off vape pens hobbled one of its main categories.
Then came the 2020 coronavirus pandemic…and in some ways, marijuana was on more of a roll than ever. In states like California, which designated its dispensaries an essential service, a growing mountain of evidence suggests sales have shot up since March 1. No wonder: Much of the cannabis customer base is stuck at home, anxious and bored at the same time. Those who need to go out to work are even more stressed out. Guess which plant has the best track record of relieving such afflictions.
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But buried in the figures was another story. Demand for edibles is up across the board; sales of smokeable and vapeable products are relatively flat even in an era of panic-buying and hoarding. The fact that COVID-19 is a respiratory disease gave smokers pause; experts advise abstaining from smoke or vapor to put your lungs in their healthiest place, should they need to fight off the fast-spreading virus.
And 4/20/20, a date so widely anticipated that weed companies timed their product launches to it, was marked by officials spreading warnings like this one from rapper E40 telling fans not to celebrate because “the game needs us, you feel me?”
So how does the game play out for pot? Where does weed world go from here? Nobody knows, just as we don’t know how long the COVID-19 crisis or its associated stay-at-home orders will last. Forecasts for the second quarter, because that’s a thing pot companies do now, have all been put in the shredder. But here we use the business world’s favorite strategic tool, scenario planning, to help us think about four possible futures for the cannabis industry post-pandemic.
1. Return to normalcy
Everything goes back to the way it was, sooner rather than later, and the fall 2020 harvest is largely unaffected. Cannabis consumers resume exactly the same smoking and vaping behaviors as before, sharing their joints and pipes with no fear of spreading the virus through dreaded droplets. New users visit dispensaries at the same brisk clip, unconcerned by respiratory worries.
This seems, in some ways, the least likely scenario. No matter how long stay-at-home orders last, the need to avoid large gatherings will likely remain while we wait for a vaccine that isn’t expected before 2021. Famous weed-friendly festivals won’t be around to reinforce the social norms of the 2010s, either. Burning Man was effectively canceled just last week, with no word on when the next one will be. Coachella was postponed until October; if it is canceled outright, we may start to find ourselves in cultural sea-change territory.
2. Non-smokeable weed is king
Edible sales are up, up, up: This is the one constant in the 420 marketing pitches hitting my inbox. Cannabis data intelligence company Headset reports a 13 percent rise in sales of weed-laced beverages in food since February. Indeed, edibles have much to commend them to coronavirus-panicked buyers — not least the fact that you can store the stuff for months in the freezer (if it’s gummies or candies, at least).
If that sales trend continues at the same pace, and public health officials continue spreading the don’t-smoke-or-vape message, we could be looking at a world where the majority of the weed harvest goes to creating cannabis butters and oils and other edible formats. Such a shift in production would create its own center of gravity, for example favoring varieties known to produce a clearer-headed, more focused high. As any connoisseur knows, edible highs don’t just take longer to kick in; they’re qualitatively different from their smoked counterparts.
But that also leads us to the main problem with an edible future scenario: A lot of consumers just don’t like their edible experience, finding it too spacey and dissociative. Meanwhile, one FDA study (from way back in 1973!) suggests, counterintuitively, that marijuana smoke in small quantities causes the lungs to expand rather than constrict “and, unlike opiates, does not cause central respiratory depression.” As the science of COVID-19 and what exactly it does to the lungs advances, and the panic simmers down, the public health advice may shift.
But even if it doesn’t change, there are more ways to consume marijuana other than via your lungs or your gullet. One promising area I wrote about in 2018: the rise of nasal spray weed such as Verra Wellness nasal mist. With an experience rather like using Flonase, these sprays combine the best of both edible and smokeable worlds. The onset is fast, the high is (apparently) very clear-headed and you’re not affecting your lungs one way or another. What’s not to love?
3. Puff, don’t pass
The activity at the center of cannabis culture — standing in a circle of friends old or new, passing a joint or a pipe — vanished overnight thanks to social distancing. In this scenario, it’s pretty much gone for good, and a whole generation is averse to ever doing it again. Among those who remember the coronavirus crisis of 2020-2022, passing around something you put your mouth on is seen as weird and unhygienic.
Counterintuitively, this would lead to a boost for cannabis sales as everyone now has to bring their own stuff to the party. So the public health message is likely to be reinforced at retail level, by dispensaries and head shops alike: Don’t rely on others, you irresponsible mooch. Buy your own pipe or pen, and you’ll potentially save a life.
A milder form of this scenario, as suggested in the Dart ad above: Perhaps joint smokers will still share, but each bring their own cigarette holders. Then again, that still requires touching the same joint, which may be a no-no long into the future.
4. Weed triumphant
The coronavirus quarantine turns out to have been the perfect breeding ground for new users. They don’t stop when they come out of lockdown; in fact, they start preferring it to alcohol as a midday or post-work treat. Bars and restaurants, already on the ropes, take a permanent hit. Author and researcher Steven Kotler called this a generational shift, irreversible even before the pandemic. “Look at Silicon Valley, they’re all getting high on their lunch break,” he told me last year.
This makes a lot of sense. Alcohol sales may have spiked at the beginning of the lockdown, but many drinkers are likely to discover — perhaps after one too many work-from-home hangovers — that it is exactly the wrong drug for this moment. Drinking is a group activity that promotes expansive, outgoing behavior; drink at home night after night and your friends are rightly concerned.
THC, on the other hand, is on home turf here. It makes the most humdrum life moments seem interesting and important, and puts you safely to sleep better than booze. It pairs well with eating snacks, cleaning your house, watching Netflix and playing the strolling flaneur around your neighborhood at a friendly but careful distance. We are, in a sense, all stoners now.
Will our stay-at-home months be enough to tilt the scales on society’s drug of choice? Reports from the front lines of the west coast suggest the practice is spreading, um, virally. SF-based weed delivery platform Sava says a whopping 66 percent of its customers are first-timers. Even in the most mature weed markets, Colorado and Washington, Headset reports “dramatic spikes” in sales mid-March — though they dropped back to regular levels at the end of the month, suggesting panic-buying may have been in effect.
Regardless, much depends on states and countries that were considering or had previously rejected legalization. The widespread unemployment we’re already seeing will leave millions looking for forms of government-sanctioned solace; never forget that the U.S. started reversing its alcohol prohibition at the outset of the Great Depression. Governors, meanwhile, will be scrambling to plug holes in income tax and sales tax revenue.
Luckily, “If all states legalized and taxed marijuana, states could collectively expect to raise between $5 billion and $18 billion per year,” says the nonprofit Tax Foundation (which usually opposes greater taxation). In other words, we may soon be living in a world that can’t afford not to legalize weed — especially not as it becomes the dominant downtime activity of the 2020s.