Cannabis consumers are just like us

The cover of a recent report on cannabis consumers, produced by New Frontier Data, features a set of nine close-up portrait shots of people, apparently in their 30s, who could easily comprise the staff of a graphic-design firm or a team of web developers.

That’s the image that the pot industry generally goes for, with some exceptions, of course. Cannabis consumers are folks like anybody else, whose pot use is perfectly normal. They are educated and productive. And, of course, many pot consumers are just that, especially the ones who get their weed from licensed dispensaries in legal states.

But one look through the responses to just about any Twitter thread or Facebook post about weed will reveal that a lot of pot users are marginal types, obsessed with weed and given to engaging in internet trolling, spreading conspiracy theories—about cannabis and otherwise—and just being generally insufferable. A disturbingly high number of them seem to be MAGA. One might reasonably assume that among that cohort, the frequency of pot use is higher, and that they use weed less responsibly as compared to the people on the cover of the New Frontier report. One important caveat here: Many medical users consume large quantities of pot because they often have to.

A major question for the legal-weed industry is: Which group should pot companies market to? It’s not a zero-sum question; they can market to both if they’re smart about it. But in creating and maintaining a brand, they have to pick one group over the other. One can tell from looking at the product names, marketing materials and label designs which group a given company has chosen to target. For example, one that emphasizes health and wellness is very different from one that hints at how wrecked consumers will get on their gummies, and that includes a lot of dumb ’70s iconography and hippie stuff.

New Frontier’s report, assuming it’s solid, seems to indicate that aiming cannabis marketing at everyday folks is probably the best bet in most cases.

A poorly hidden secret of the so-called vice industries, such as liquor, gambling, junk food and tobacco, is that most of the dollars spent come from the heaviest users. For instance, booze producers rely on alcoholics to hit their quarterly revenue targets—which puts their advertisements’ “Please Drink Responsibly” messages in an amusing light. Snack makers depend mostly on overeaters. Las Vegas relies heavily on degenerate gamblers. Cigarette makers, by definition, serve a customer base of addicts.

But while lots of people use weed as sort of a “vice,” the cannabis industry isn’t really a “vice” business. Often, it’s the precise opposite. Tons of people really do use weed for medical purposes. Others use it to relax after a long day, or to heighten their enjoyment of a movie or concert. There are pitfalls and drawbacks to using pot, but they’re not anything like the outright dangers of drinking, sugar-binging, gambling or cigarette-smoking.

The New Frontier report—“Cannabis Consumers in America 2023 Part 2: Exploring the Archetypes”—has good news on that front, both for the industry and for society: Typical legal cannabis consumers are neither heavy users nor occasional, or “experimental,” users; they are those who use pot regularly, but not, if you will, chronically. The researchers created nine “archetypes” based on type and frequency of use. Heavier users are dubbed “savvy connoisseurs” and “lifestylers.” But, going by the report, and by anecdotal observation, we’re more likely to see consumers in the “modern medicinals” or the “engaged explorers” categories. Those would be the people on the front cover.

From the beginning, the legal-weed industry has faced a massive challenge to overcome all the stoner stereotypes: That people who use pot are all lazy, zoned-out dummies. That’s part of why pot remains illegal in many states and under federal law, but it’s also why it’s often hard to get local governments to approve licenses for pot merchants. It also keeps potential customers away out of fear that they’ll be branded as “potheads.” The more we learn about today’s pot consumers, the less of a problem that will be.