The majority of adults — nearly 70 percent — in U.S. states with fully legalized cannabis use already consume cannabis products or are open to doing so.

That’s according to BDSA and IRI, two research firms that have been collaborating since November 2019 to get a full picture of changing consumer perceptions and the rapid growth of the cannabis industry.

Jessica Lukas, senior VP of commercial development, BDSA, and Carl Edstrom, senior VP and principal, Survey Solutions, IRI, presented research on sales of cannabis products, consumer demographics, consumption occasions and the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic during Cannabis Products Exchange, held virtually July 30-31.

Edstrom noted the opening of medical cannabis markets, particularly before states extend legalization to adult use, has allowed consumers to become more familiar and comfortable with cannabis. The federal legalization of hemp, which paved the way for the production and sale of CBD products, could also help destigmatize THC, he added.

“As people become more comfortable with CBD, it will break down any negative feelings that still exist about THC and cannabis products,” he said.

BDSA breaks down consumer populations into three groups: consumers, acceptors and rejectors. In states where cannabis is fully legal, 31 percent are rejectors, meaning they have a moral objection to cannabis, have had a negative experience in the past, or don’t see it having an impact on their lives. 

However, 36 percent are current consumers and 33 percent are acceptors. He added mainstream acceptance has grown 10 percent over the two years and is approaching the acceptance of alcohol.

“We’ve got a broad base of the population that is not only accepting but can potentially be using already and look to use more in the future,” he said.

But beyond acceptance, it’s difficult to pin down the typical cannabis consumer, Edstrom said, since they come from all generations, genders and socio-economic backgrounds. They also enter the cannabis space with different needs and in search of varying benefits. 

According to a BDSA survey conducted in the first quarter of 2020, 72 percent of consumers use cannabis for recreational and social occasions, while 59 percent do so for health and medical reasons. Nearly 40 percent (37 percent) consume cannabis for both purposes.

Of current cannabis users, 71 percent consume edibles and 33 percent prefer them, BDSA reported. Candy remains the most popular edibles format, followed by chocolate, infused foods, pills and beverages. Factors that most influence edibles purchases include taste and flavor, price and whether consumers have tried the brand before. 

BDSA noted consumers who prefer edibles tend to use them to promote sleep and relaxation and manage anxiety and stress. As a result, just over 40 percent of edibles consumers use them daily, with consumption peaking in the evening. Nearly 29 percent consume edibles weekly, while 30 percent consume less than weekly.

Nonetheless, edibles sales represent just 15 percent of total cannabis sales, generating roughly $420 million in Arizona, California, Colorado, Illinois, Massachusetts, Maryland, Nevada and Oregon through April 2020.

Lukas added many of the assumptions made about certain consumer groups and their consumption habits — such as women preferring edibles over inhalable products — have proven to be untrue.

“It’s important to think through who these people are and opening your minds to different use cases and occasions,” Lukas said. “In most cases, any of those preconceived notions are incorrect.”

The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in late February and early March also illustrated changes in the perception of cannabis, both for consumers and governments. Cannabis dispensaries were deemed essential businesses alongside grocery stores, gas stations and hardware stores.

Lukas cited Illinois, where Cannabis Products Magazine is based, as a particularly striking example.

“It’s fascinating to think about Illinois going from an illegal market in December 2019 to deemed an essential business with the impact of COVID-19 very early on in 2020,” Lukas said. “There are really interesting shifts in the perspective around this marketplace.”

Cannabis sales increased in states where it’s legal, with the exception of Massachusetts and Nevada, Lukas noted. She added dispensaries witnessed stock-up behavior — fewer transactions and larger baskets — in March and April, but purchases have since evened out. The pandemic also prompted state governments to rethink regulations over cannabis delivery and online pre-order and pickup.

BDSA reported that three-quarters of consumers said their cannabis consumption increased or stayed the same since learning about COVID-19. That’s not surprising, given cannabis’ ability to help manage stress, anxiety and sleep issues, as well as consumers staying in more, Lukas said.

“Whether it’s alcohol, food or cannabis, we’re probably consuming a little bit more of everything now that we’re at home,” she said.