New Research Builds Understanding of Cannabis Consumers

Aside from smartphones and rideshare apps, it’s hard to think of a recent singular moment that created an entirely new market. That is until cannabis became legal overnight in a growing number of states.

Employers, public health officials, regulators, growers, and retailers all seek to understand and respond to consumer demands. At the same time, they must also address the social and legal issues that continue to surround this newly legalized product.

We wanted to learn more about this new and fast-evolving market. Quinn Thomas and DHM Research conducted two focus groups and a 900-person survey of cannabis consumers in Colorado, Washington, and Oregon. And we spoke with key regulators, employers, cannabis industry entrepreneurs, and advocates in the three states. The goal: to better understand cannabis users and how their consumer behavior may drive industry trends.

The result is CANNABIS NEXT DOOR: A profile of the consumers driving a new industry, our fourth Insights report about key trends and issues affecting the Pacific Northwest and the nation.

Here’s what we learned:

Consumers voiced a desperate need for more information

The most trusted source for accurate information among cannabis users is the staff at licensed dispensaries. Forty-nine percent of those surveyed trust “bud-tenders,” trailed by 38 percent who trust their doctor. Following these groups are growers, state regulators, cannabis manufacturers, and state health authorities.

Cannabis consumers find gaps in information. For example, bud-tenders are better equipped to handle questions about recreational use than medical use, and doctors are cautious to give advice on the medical use of cannabis. As a result, consumers are often left to find answers to their questions online.

Cannabis is displacing alcohol

Our data suggest that cannabis users will consume alcohol or cannabis, but not both at the same time. Thirty-eight percent of all cannabis consumers report drinking less alcohol since cannabis was legalized for recreational use, 58 percent drink about the same, and 4 percent drink more. Only 39 percent of cannabis consumers use cannabis and alcohol together. This means most consumers see them as “one or the other” methods of relaxation.

Reasons for cannabis use are more likely to include reducing stress, anxiety, and pain as opposed to socializing with friends. This means manufacturers have a chance to convert alcohol consumers if they can convince those who seek to relax with an alcoholic drink to try cannabis instead.

Cannabis use is becoming more entangled with the workplace

Our data show a quarter of all employed cannabis consumers have used at work several times in the last year, and a quarter have used cannabis right before work.

We heard from employers that the tight labor market has sometimes led them to stop screening for cannabis, even while they maintain restrictions for use while on the job. As legalization evolves, employers will continue to struggle with balancing workforce needs with the health and safety of their employees.

Cannabis marketers have a big opportunity right now

The cannabis industry has a brand problem – it’s not news that cannabis suffers from negative stereotypes in our popular culture. Cannabis users widely feel a social stigma, too. Seventy-nine percent agree that there is a social stigma attached to cannabis use. There’s a long road ahead to changed perceptions and mainstream acceptance.

Cannabis consumers want to love a brand – attention to cannabis brand differentiation and loyalty is key for marketers. Consumers are in tune with the quality and consistency of products. They care about growers, manufacturers, and retailers that produce a reliable product. Brands in the cannabis industry should aim to stand out as trusted manufacturers and retailers.

Five years ago Quinn Thomas, a marketing communications and brand strategy agency, and DHM Research, an independent research firm, teamed up on the first of a series of Insights reports. We designed these reports to bring our collective expertise in research, audience analysis, and strategic communications to emerging issues facing our communities. Our goal is to bring a critical perspective to inform the discussions of business executives, policymakers and community influencers.