Re-Inventing the “Pothead” (Who Uses Cannabis These Days, Anyway?)

[Editor’s Note: There is a ton of good information in this story about how the demographic and profile of ‘potheads’ is changing rapidly. While the prose is a little dense, it’s truly worth the read.]

Short answer: nearly everyone, with more converts everyday.

Cannabis, now “legal” in many jurisdictions, is becoming an accepted therapeutic and recreational alternative. Senior citizens now represent the fastest growing demographic of cannabis user.

For many of those who’ve lived thought times of prohibition, the present days can feel like a fairy tale. Legalization news can surprise and shock even the most informed reader, and many of us have found ourselves facing our news outlet with an open mouth.

Although the panorama of legal cannabis changes everyday, years of prohibition have accustomed us to prevailing misconceptions that are far from what the current market data is showing, and this has particular impact in the way we perceive and conceive the average cannabis consumer.

Luckily, as well as opening up the game to a whole new spectrum of users, legalization also brings us the chance to get a clear understanding of exactly who these new players are, and help us get to know every trait of the ‘Modern-Day Pothead’.

The Birth of the ‘Traditional Pothead’

In spite of cannabis’ major role in shaping the way we think and perceive the world around us since immemorial times, prohibition policies that rose during the early 20th century obscured the plant’s medical, recreational and spiritual potential, deeming it a hazardous and diabolical substance.

As the vapors of ignorance started to dispel by the end of first half of the 20th century, an increasingly growing number of adventurous individuals began to experiment with the plant, re-discovering the once lost connection that binds humans and cannabis together. Even though cannabis was banned in most of North America by the 1930s, substantial evidence of mass arrests for possession charges didn’t come up until the 1960s, a decade that saw an exponential increase in the number of pot users both in Canada and in the US.

Since that time, following a widespread adoption by the hippie movement, marijuana became a mass phenomenon. A 1969 Gallup poll revealed that 4% of Americans had tried marijuana at least once in their lifetimes. By the 1990s, a new survey performed by the same research firm, showed that number had climbed up to 34%. Regardless of the reasons these vintage consumers had for -presumably- smoking pot, the vast majority of them are liable to fit similar character descriptions.

When seeking to find attributes that describe a specific consumer, we can always rely on marketing professionals. It’s their job to carefully and accurately describe their targeted sector, in order to market their products efficiently. Duncan McGillivray is a digital marketing expert from Edmonton, Alberta, and director of advertising at Strong Coffee Marketing. According to him “Cannabis always had an opportunity to rebrand itself even when it was illegal, but had no reason to. There’s no point in advertising something illegal as it’s a sure fire way to draw attention to yourself.”

However, let us play a little game. Let’s pretend we are a very creative and audacious pot dealer from any time between the boom of marijuana in the 60s, and the start of the decriminalization process in the late 90s. Inspired by the novel and innovative marketing tactics of our time, we want to make our business grow. For that, we plan to develop a very strong and effective marketing campaign that’ll bring us more clients and step over the competition. The first step, as mentioned earlier, is to analyze out target.

So, what does the average pot consumer look like in these days of prohibition?

-First of all, we must remember that by this time cannabis is still an illegal substance by any possible interpretation. This marks the capital and most crucial criteria for our targeting process: the consumer must be willing to break the law in order to enjoy their weed habits. This leaves out most members of conservative sectors of society from entering our dealer’s number into their address book, and also, anybody with strictly legalistic moral values.

-Second: for the most part of this period, the idea of cannabis as a form of medicine is not such a widespread notion. So, although consumers are benefiting from cannabis’ medical perks, the main reason behind their consumption is likely to be a recreational effect, and not a healing effect.

-Third: cannabis is not only illegal, it’s frowned upon. This means that a consumer needs to be willing to engage in their habits in private, or in hiding, not only from the authorities, but also from the judgemental look of passers-by.

Cannabis as a tool for social identification

Lisa Buffo is a Marketing Professional focused on the cannabis industry, who is Founder & CEO of the Cannabis Marketing Association. She told us “it’s tough to say how many were already using cannabis before legalization since people may not want to admit engaging in an illegal activity at the time.”

Although our analysis so far has been mostly conjectural, using the three general rules of character our innovative pot-dealer has discovered, we can probably describe most of the cannabis users North-America has seen in the past few decades: an heterogeneous group of people with an overall similar approach to life, who can be described as politically and morally liberal, with a loose approach towards respecting legislation and a shared interest for trying out new experiences that can escape the spectrum of what’s socially accepted as ‘correct’.

I.e: the ‘Traditional pot-head’.

This means that amongst these people, marijuana could -and did- become a flag of mutual understanding. As with any other character trait, like the way we dress, the expressions we use, our taste in music, and our political inclinations; the habit of cannabis became a way of recognising a certain familiarity with the fellow smoker (or vaper, or eater or drop user), which at the same time, had a bonding effect.

Thus, cannabis use grew amongst specific groups of people who shared it in the same way they shared beliefs, tastes, and other habits that bound them together as a group. Amongst these particular crowds we can highlight the well-educated middle-class young adults roaming around the nation’s college campuses, the artistic community and the alternative medicine practitioners.

Is there a ‘Modern-Day Pothead’?

As much as traditional weed users must have enjoyed having their beloved plant as a means of communal gathering, few of them are likely to have been bummed when they learned it would be going legal. Even if this would upset the status quo, by opening up the market to a whole new community of consumers. According to Lisa Buffo “It is natural to perceive that when a substance is illegal, it’s because it’s bad for you. Legalization (especially medical cannabis laws) challenges this assumption. As cannabis use becomes more normalized and people in legal states no longer have to risk criminal punishment, it naturally relaxes some of the barriers that would have kept these new consumers away.”

The relationship between Cannabis’ legal status and its social acceptance is intertwined. There would have been no possibility of passing the Cannabis Act, if there hadn’t already been a strong acceptance of cannabis’ beneficial potential by a large portion of society, which accounts for a long process of debunking the myths and prejudices associated to the plant.

In that same sense, the change of cannabis’ legal status from illegal to legal, has helped it gain a wider social acceptance, since the legal system is (in most democratic countries) one of society’s main bases for forging moral opinion.

So, by making cannabis legal, the Canadian Parliament did not only passed a new law, it passed an invitation to try it, and enjoy all of its benefits. And there’s no higher authority than that of the state, specially for people who were restraining themselves from marijuana in the past, on account of it being illegal.

Getting to Know the New Cannabis Consumer

So, what does this new consumer look like? Apparently, different from what most of us though.

According to Deloitte’s 2018 Cannabis Market Report, the prohibition era consumer is a risk taker, normally a young person (18-34) in a quest to live their life to the fullest, even if this attitude is harmful to their health. However, legalization is forecasting the rise of a whole new type of consumer (35-54): an older, more conservative user, who respects public opinion, trusts the authority on legislative measures, and welcomes cannabis as a legitimate form of medicine.

The new era of legal cannabis is not only bringing us more accurate descriptions of cannabis consumers through a newly achieved openness about consumption. Today, we can rely on ‘point-of-sale data’ to know every demographic purchasing a specific product. Through this type of data collection, we’ve recently learned that Gen Xers prefer consuming cannabis through non-smoking options such as edibles and drops. And, as the legal market allows for the creation of new products and formats, we can find a growing interest from people who generally dislike smoking. “There’s been lots of talk of people who are not interested in ‘smoking’ or ‘vaping’, so when the government legalizes edibles and drinks, I’d bet you see consumption grow”, said Duncan McGillivray.

Perhaps most surprisingly of all, is a 2016 study showing that seniors are the fastest growing customer segment in the US. Lissa Buffo explained: “Cannabis is increasingly becoming known as a wellness product and spending is up among people of all ages. For example, in a survey conducted by Eaze, 95% of the consumers who use or have used sleeping pills said that they used cannabis to reduce their consumption of sleeping pills. Of this 95%, almost half (45%) reported that they completely replaced their sleeping pills with cannabis”.

When considering Cannabis’ perceptual shift from a “substance (that) has a high potential for abuse” with “no currently accepted medical use in treatment” – as read in the description of the list for Schedule I drugs-, to that of a proper medicine with the proven capacity of improving a vast number of ailments, it’s less surprising to learn of a welcoming acceptance form seniors, an age group commonly associated with chronic health conditions.

A Glimpse into The Future

Another report by Eaze, showed that after just 8 months of California’s newly opened recreational market, “9 in 10 California consumers (90%) have some medical use for cannabis, indicating cannabis’ strong position as a wellness product”.

Although we’re still setting foot on the shores of the cannabis ocean, most evidence seems to indicate that, thanks to government support through legalization, the prejudices once associated with cannabis are expiring for good. The result is a consumer that cannot be identified with any particular demographic because it comes from all walks of life, making cannabis a product used by people regardless of their political or religious inclinations, level of education, race, age, sex or condition. Lisa Buffo: “It’s functionality as a medical, wellness, and adult-use product makes it a cross-sector commodity that can be used by anyone who chooses to do so.”

But it’s important to remember that, even though the market is growing fast, the breach between recreational and medical consumers is still there. And, even though cannabis is on its way to becoming a universal form of medicine soon, its status as a formally accepted form of intoxicant is further away.

Medical patients, who will be consuming the CBD (pain relief, relaxation) parts of cannabis, could come from all walks of life, and I don’t believe there’s any political affiliation or psychographic that particularly identifies to them. When it comes to recreational, I think as acceptance grows, so will the market. I’d guess that older demographics likely wouldn’t be as interested as younger. Religion and political views may also play a factor.”- Said Duncan McGillivray, who is optimistic about the competition that recreational cannabis can offer the alcohol industries.

“Surpassing this alcohol industry will be a challenge, but I believe the added benefit of a 0 calorie and low-cost “high” may help cannabis take a significant chunk of the alcohol industry market share.”

As market evidence is pointing out, sooner or later, cannabis will regain its lost role in western society. That day, the pothead distinction with be a thing of the past. Because we’ll all be potheads. Policemen, politicians, seniors and commonplace men and women, enjoying the gift of nature, without restraints.

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