Claire Birks -Senior Analyst
Alexandra Curley – Insights & Reports Director
Conor O’Brien – Industry and Data Analyst
The commercial cannabis industry has boomed on the back of cannabis’ shock factor, with its novel and still somewhat controversial nature making for a unique selling and branding point. The drug has also caused huge regulatory upheaval and disruption in the medical sphere, as growing numbers of countries continue to overhaul their national legislative systems to accommodate cannabis as a new medical and economic opportunity.
But now, as more people begin to become familiar with the concept of cannabis as an accepted medical product and a marketable consumer good, we ask the question: is cannabis becoming a normal feature of our society?
Public opinion is shifting towards cannabis normalisation
Though cannabis legalisation has been a controversial issue for decades, we are beginning to see significant and enduring changes in public opinion that have swung the debate in favour of legalisation. But why now? What has changed?
The shift in opinion has been driven by the high levels of attention that cannabis has received in the media and in the online space. While the economic opportunities presented by cannabis have consistently driven traffic in the financial press, stories that share the human element behind the fight for legalisation — particularly those of parents and children seeking medical cannabis treatments — have captured the public’s attention and sympathy.
With the internet and social media facilitating a wider public discussion than ever before, the narrative behind these stories can no longer be controlled by the conventional press. The internet has also given the public access to a huge number of educational resources, including the results of published scientific studies, which have fuelled well-informed public discourse on the issues of cannabis legalisation, decriminalisation and the broader effects of drug prohibition.
Another vital factor at play in this opinion shift is the infiltration of cannabis and hemp-derived CBD products into the consumer marketplace. In recent years, CBD has transformed into a trendy ingredient for consumer goods, with the cannabinoid now being seen in drinks, foods, beauty products and personal care products. CBD’s popularity in this sector has been driven by its observed effects as an antioxidant and anti-inflammatory agent, and its distinct lack of any controversial intoxicating effects.
The popularity of these CBD products, and the general lack of stigma surrounding their use, is causing many consumers to re-examine everything they thought they knew about cannabis and its uses.
Conversations are evolving
One of the most effective ways to quantify society’s cannabis normalisation is through charting surveys of public opinion, and comparing them against more current statistics.
In the United States, there has been a clear and significant change in public opinion throughout the last decade. A Pew Research Centre survey, published in November 2019, found that opposition to cannabis legalisation sits now at just 32%, falling dramatically from the 52% who opposed legalisation in 2010.
In the United Kingdom, the Conservative Drug Policy Reform Group saw support for legalising recreational cannabis climb by five percentage points in just one calendar year — to reach 48% in favour of legalisation.
There has also been a large swing in opinion in Australia, with 42% of Australians now supporting legalisation — a nine-point increase in just four years. The percentage of Australian respondents maintaining that cannabis should remain illegal is also down, falling by 7% over the same period.
More globally, in the online space, the narratives around cannabis and CBD are seen to be changing. A Prohibition Partners search of online trends in conversation, courtesy of Infegy Atlas, shows that the conversation surrounding cannabis has grown rapidly. Further analysis reveals that this growth is not just a reflection of the widening legalisation of medical cannabis, but also because of a rising interest in CBD oil and its benefits.
Trends in keyword usage show a distinct tonal shift in online conversation, away from topics that relate to a more illicit cannabis market, and towards ones that are relevant to today’s legal commercial cannabis industry.
Also seen in the study of online conversation is the emergence, and soar to popularity, of some of the most prominent segments of the CBD consumer marketplace.
Discussion of CBD food, drinks and beauty products have surged in the past year. Now, searches for CBD products online surpass those of many other popular health and wellness options. According to recent Google Trends figures, US searches for CBD are now 749% greater than those for acupuncture, 338% greater than meditation, and 12% larger than veganism.
A divided future for cannabis normalisation
Hemp-derived CBD products can now be found on shelves in Wal-Mart, CVS, Holland and Barrett, and other popular high-street stores. Medical cannabis is legal for use in 33 US states, with recreational cannabis use legal in 11 states and the District of Columbia. Across the ocean, Luxembourg is seeking to become the first European country to legalise recreational cannabis, and in Asia a ‘Domino Effect’ is heralding in more liberal cannabis reform across the continent.
Recreational cannabis use will continue to divide opinion in the future, but when it comes to non-intoxicating cannabis products like CBD, many of the most important barriers have already been broken down.
With continued exposure to these products and constructive discussion, consumers have become more shrewd, seeking out cannabis products based on their benefits, pricing and branding, rather than being swept up in novelty.
Whether cannabis normalisation extends to other products will likely rest on what happens within the field of cannabis research. If further studies can continue to elucidate the effects of cannabis and prove the drug to be a safe and effective medicine, then the industry, as a whole, can bring the plant out of the shadows and into the light.