Is the cannabis market headed for “Bud-lightification”?

Annie Lowrey has a smart piece in the NYT Magazine about how the cannabis business is likely to look after legalization. She gets one key point – much lower prices – though she doesn’t develop its implications for the size of the cannabis market and the prevalence cannabis abuse disorder; that’s not what her story is about.

The focus of the article is on consistency, and how the industry is stumbling toward being able to deliver a reproducible product, to the point where two joints with the same brand name will be alike as two beers with the same brand name. If that happens – and I think Lowrey is right that it will – that might make cannabis a much safer product. But there’s a subtlety here.

Bud Light is reliable, but it’s also pretty bad (or so my beer-drinking friends tell me). So’s a McDonald’s burger. On the other hand, there are also products that are both reliable and of high quality.
Other than quality, there’s the question of diversity.  The beer market is overwhelmingly dominated by four more-or-less-identical brands. It’s not just that every can of  Bud is the same as every other can of Bud; they’re pretty much the same as cans of Miller or Coors. So other than the choice between regular lager and light, there’s not much actual consumer choice among mass-market beers, which account for upwards of 70% of the beer sold in the U.S.
It’s possible that the pot market will wind up like the beer market. But it could instead end up like the wine market, with greater variety and higher quality along with reliability. That would matter both to the consumer experience and also to the distribution of political power.
So standardization is good. Bud-Lightification, not so much. And they’re different phenomena.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com

9 thoughts on “Is the cannabis market headed for “Bud-lightification”?”

  1. Which parameters are constrained in order to standardize? And which parameters can be relaxed to allow diversity?

  2. It looks as if pot needs the equivalent of oenobabble to prop up diversity. James Thurber:

    1. Here's a 2013 Summer Humboldt Green Sensemilla. It isn't very subtle at all — the nose is distinctly burnt hemp. On the other hand, two tokes will knock you flat on your a**.

    2. Oenobabble! My new vocabulary word.

      I wondered how common it was, so I did a Google search and got 41 results.

  3. But people who actually like beer don't drink mass-market beers (much). Even my brothers (who like lagers and actively dislike heavy styles like stouts) avoid Bud, Miller and Coors generally in favor of Miller-Coors and InBev's (slightly) upscale brands like Blue Moon.

    Of course the key question about American beers (prior to the microbrewery renaissance) is, "Why is American beer like having sex in a canoe?"

  4. Well, I don't really disagree with you, but IMO there is both a greater variety in wine and a greater amount of dreck, much of it sold at exorbitant prices.

    And as far as pot goes, there are variations within one plant, let alone one grow room, let alone one strain. Wine grapes varietals are very few comparatively.

  5. Speaking as someone who doesn't drink or use cannabis, let me make the following cynical remark.

    The wine market is different from the beer market because it's the market of snobs who want to distinguish themselves from the commoners. This is no different from the indy music or indy film phenomenon. The reality of the world is you have a large population who just want to get drunk, and will go for the cheapest thing (box wine or low-end beer) which does the job. You then have a smaller crowd who, in addition to wanting to get drunk want to show off their superiority, which sustains a bunch of specialty beers and wines. And then you have a truly minuscule crowd who can actually tell the difference between A and B and are willing to pay for it. Wine (and distilled alcohol) sustains all these different variants because (according to Hollywood and thus to people who take their cues from Hollywood) the quick way you establish that you're a middlebrow person of taste and discernment is that you make a huge fuss about the particular fermentation process you drink on different occasions.

    I expect no difference in a legal cannabis market. The bulk of the stoner crowd will go for the cheapest product that will do the job. The crowd that want to appear cool will go for weird shit with cloves added or which comes in a differently shaped box or whatever.

    The only issue relevant to your question is whether it will stick as a mark of taste and discernment that you make a huge fuss about the particular brand of smoke you choose to give yourself lung cancer and rot your brain. My guess is that it will not. The tobacco companies could not get this to stick under circumstances where they had substantially more freedom to say what they liked.
    Of course there'll be an attempt to go down the branding road of alcohol, but my guess is that in ten or fifteen years cannabis will be in the same ghetto as tobacco today — the mark of the lower classes, the indolent, and the unambitious. It won't press any of the buttons that have led to the artificial diversity driving wine variations, because it won't be in any sense an aspirational or positional product.

    1. No weed or wine, but vitriol by the bucketful. For someone so keen to truck in the stereotypes of wine and craft beer consumers, you’re doing a good job of reinforcing the teetotaller stereotype of joyless grump.

      Aside from the unnecessary swipes, you made a good point – the relevant dividing line the intoxicants industry has a lot to do with consumer intent, if they’re just looking for an expedient high, or want some added value to go along with it.

      The reason I got into craft brewing, and ultimately made it my profession, is due to the wonderful synergy created by interesting and novel-tasting beer, the company of friends, and a nice alcohol buzz. You can call it snobbery, I see it as a kind of efficiency. I also take genuine pleasure from a direct connection with the intoxicants I consume.

      But I can also appreciate a watery macro when all I’m looking for is refreshment and intoxication. My tastes in marijuana generally cleave in that direction also – I’ve turned to extracts, primarily, since I find dose control to have a much bigger influence on achieving the high I want than any alleged qualitative differences between strains.

      The macro market is at 70% – and shrinking. I don’t know where the ceiling is on craft beer, but we haven’t reached it yet. The trend also seems fairly insensitive to boundaries of class and geography, mirroring beer production itself. It will be interesting to see which pattern the emerging THC market takes after, considering weed cultivation is more closely tied to place and climate.

  6. There's very little difference in drug quality between the "good" beers and the cheap stuff, or with wines, either. The differences in quality are not due to differences in the drug itself, ethyl alcohol, but in psychoactively inert compounds that make one drink taste different from another.

    The people who like beer the most, that is, the alcoholics, are aware of this and are more likely to choose the cheap stuff. It's reasonable to assert that the person who drinks ten or fifteen beers every night likes his beer more than the person who might have one or two on a weekend.

    If you're seeking the highest drug quality in your alcoholic beverage you might choose vodka, which has fewer congeners that might make some people sick.

    Cannabis, on the other hand, appears to have at least two psychoactive compounds (and probably more) with different effects. Back when, the most common metric of quality was the number of bong hits it took to get stoned. Taste was a minor concern. Time will tell how much of a difference commercialization will make.

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