The Cannabis Consumer: New Archetypes Reveal Who Influences the Market, and How
By John Kagia, Chief Knowledge Officer, New Frontier Data, and Molly McCann, Ed.D., Director of Industry Analytics, New Frontier Data
This year is poised to prove itself an epochal year for cannabis in the United States. From last November’s elections to this month, no fewer than eight states — representing more than 40 million people — changed their cannabis laws to legalize it, either or both for medical or adult use. On the East Coast, the dominoes have fallen quickly, with New Jersey, New York, and Virginia, respectively, all passing adult-use measures within weeks of one another; in the West, meanwhile, both Arizona and New Mexico joined the ranks of fully legal markets.
The tide of legalization has been driven by dramatic shifts in popular attitudes about cannabis, waning public support for its prohibition, and accelerated marketing, normalization, and social acceptance of the plant and various products featuring it. Over the decade since 2010, the percentage of adults supporting legalization rose from 41% to 67%, making cannabis approval one of today’s fastest-changing public policy issues in America.
According to new polling from each Quinnipiac University and Gallup, respectively, about 7 among 10 Americans and likely voters view cannabis as morally acceptable — a striking illustration of how starkly American consensus has shifted from the stigma so long associated with cannabis consumption.
The cultural sea change extends beyond rhetoric: Consumption habits, too, have dramatically demonstrated some generational change. Since 2002, the number of American adults who consumed cannabis at least once a month doubled, from 6% to 12%. There are now more monthly cannabis consumers (29.7 million) than constitute the populations of the nation’s 14 largest cities combined. And after decades of consorting among the shadows of acceptable society, legalization has allowed newly liberated millions of cannabis consumers to celebrate their lifestyles and consumerism.
In 2020, consumers spent nearly $20 billion on legal cannabis; by 2025, New Frontier Data forecasts, more than double that (i.e., $45 billion) will be spent as newly legalized markets activate. The out-year forecast number keeps rising with each new state that expands legal access, making the current estimates rather closer to the floor than the ceiling for the potential maximized opportunity. Even the disruptions and acute economic shocks caused by the COVID-19 pandemic have done little to slow the industry’s growth. In a national economy that was largely if controversially and unevenly shuttered, legal cannabis proved to be one of the few bright spots as consumers quickly adapted to remote working, social distancing, and the essential business of legal cannabis.
As the market heads into a 4/20 unlike any before, it seems particularly relevant to reassess one’s understanding both of who consumes cannabis, and why they do.
In its latest report, 2021 U.S. Cannabis Consumer Evolution: Archetypes, Preferences, and Behaviors, New Frontier Data’s newly identified consumer archetypes recognize latent groups of consumers who exist in the U.S. if without otherwise being identified in parsing other, more conventional demographic segmentation. While all the archetypes include their respective mixes of ages and genders, the latest research identifies and differentiates dozens of behavioral, attitudinal, and contextual variables.
By example, a brief overview noting some key variables which distinguish the archetypes, while also demonstrating how those variables are interlinked:
A key differentiator among consumers is how frequently they use cannabis. Among the most frequently consuming archetypes, Savvy Connoisseurs, Contemporary Lifestylers, and Legacy Lifestylers collectively comprise 24% of consumers, with many among them consuming multiple times daily. Three other archetypes — Modern Medicinals, Engaged Explorers, and Classic Smokers — represent a larger combined share (38%) of consumers who consume at least once a week. The four remaining, less-frequently consuming archetypes represent the remaining 37% of consumers; the Holistic Healers and Social Nibblers typically consume less than once a month, while many Aching Dabblers and Infrequent Partakers use less than annually.
Product Form Preferences
Archetypes also vary in terms of the range of forms of cannabis they use, as well as which forms they use most often. Among the six most-frequently consuming archetypes, a majority consume both flower and at least one non-flower product form, such as edibles, vapes, or tincture. Flower is the form used most often among the least frequently consuming archetypes (the Aching Dabblers and Infrequent Partakers), and those infrequent consumers are unlikely to use any product forms apart from flower. The other two infrequently consuming archetypes (the Holistic Healers and Social Nibblers) tend to avoid flower — with the former favoring topicals and tinctures, and the latter overwhelmingly consuming edibles.
Regulatory Context and Sourcing
Just as there is an association between an archetype’s use frequency and the product forms used, an archetype’s method of sourcing cannabis is most strongly indicated by the type of market in which they live. The archetypes (i.e., Savvy Connoisseurs and Contemporary Lifestylers) who live exclusively in legal markets, and those (i.e., Modern Medicinals and Engaged Explorers) who primarily do typically acquire cannabis from businesses (e.g., brick-and-mortar dispensaries, or delivery services). Conversely, frequent consumers who live outside of regulated markets (i.e., Legacy Lifestylers or Classic Smokers) source from dealers or friends.
Among infrequent consumers, product form preferences are associated with sourcing behavior: While infrequent consumers primarily obtain their cannabis from friends, those Holistic Healers and Social Nibblers who strongly prefer value-added products also source from brick-and-mortar dispensaries, presumably because the specific products they want are not readily available on the gray market.
Reasons for Use and Self-Identified Consumer Type
While associations as described above can be found occurring across several behavioral variables, one element that remains independent is whether consumers self-identify as medical or recreational users of cannabis. Half of the archetypes identify as medical consumers, with the majority of Savvy Connoisseurs and Legacy Lifestylers identifying “primarily” as medical consumers, with Modern Medicinals, Holistic Healers, and Aching Dabblers respectively split between identifying as “primarily” or “only” as medical consumers.
Of the five self-identified recreational archetypes, Social Nibblers and Infrequent Partakers are overwhelmingly “only” recreational users, while Contemporary Lifestylers, Engaged Explorers, and Classic Smokers are split between identifying as “primarily” recreational and “only” recreational consumers.