As momentum for legalizing cannabis in the United States rolls along — next year, Illinois becomes the 11th state to allow recreational use — a minority of consumers continue to use products and foods containing THC and its non-psychoactive component, CBD.

However, the key findings of a new study from Datassential, HotShot Report: Culinary Cannabis, show that consumers aren’t suddenly overcome with “reefer madness.”

 There is enough interest in THC- or CBD-infused foods and beverages that such items could be a growth area for some foodservice brands, but marketing those items in the right way — and in the right venue — will be challenging.

Nearly two in three consumers have never tried CBD oil or marijuana. While about four in five people favor legalization in some form (medical, recreational, or both), that doesn’t necessarily translate into high levels of interest in cannabis products.

In a survey of more than 750 consumers, 35 percent indicated they were interested in trying medical cannabis, followed by 30 percent and 29 percent of consumers interested in recreational cannabis and CBD oil, respectively. Infused foods and beverages had slightly less interest than the drugs themselves: A quarter of consumers were interested in CBD-infused cocktails and THC-infused foods, with 23 percent of people willing to try non-alcoholic beverages with either CBD or THC, or cocktails infused with THC.

CBD-infused foods had the least interest, at 22 percent of consumers surveyed.

Restaurateurs and retailers should also know that consumers largely don’t consider cannabis to be a replacement for alcohol consumption. The most common motivations given for cannabis use were functional health benefits like reducing anxiety and stress (29 percent of users) and medical reasons, such as pain management (27 percent of users). Only 24 percent of users cited recreation as their motivation for using cannabis.

Perhaps the biggest takeaway for foodservice is that the data suggest consumers consider culinary cannabis to be more of an at-home than an away-from-home product. The venues for purchasing cannabis with the greatest appeal for consumers were retail dispensaries, with 33 percent of consumers interested, and delivery services and the supermarket prepared-foods section, both with 26 percent of consumers interested.

Cannabis-focused restaurants fell in between those options, garnering the interest of 28 percent of consumers. But then traditional restaurant settings, convenience stores, and on-site venues piqued the interest of one in four consumers or fewer.

Few differences emerged between consumers in states where recreational cannabis is legal and people living where it’s still prohibited, though consumers in the former group were more likely to have consumed CBD oil and medical cannabis.

Taken altogether, the data support the foodservice industry’s optimism for culinary cannabis. Consumers are generally open to further legalization and are moderately interested in cannabis products, with infused foods and beverages slightly lagging CBD and cannabis alone. 

While wide-ranging motives for adoption mean the appeal of culinary cannabis will likely be steady to growing, functional benefits are carrying the day for now. Restaurants hoping to entice customers to try infused foods and beverages might be best served for now by focusing on the health over the high in their marketing and menu descriptions.

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