From early 20th century prohibition and Reefer Madness panic to adoption by medical communities and a recent wave of recreational decriminalisation, cannabis has come a long way from stigmatised flowering plant to the core of an estimated $73 billion legal market worldwide by 2027. Better understanding, more effective application in treatment and new means of ingesting the active THC or inactive CBD ingredient have encouraged a cultural reassessment, with ventures into the mainstream for a wide cast of businesses following its lead.

Vaporising cartridges and baked goods, snacks and sweets have become popular alternatives to smoking, whilst CBD – the non-psychoactive cannabidiol ingredient, separate from the high-inducing THC – has found a new home in the wellness market as a naturally-occurring substance used within oils – providing a relaxing calm and purported seizure and pain relief without the associated high of its cousin strain.

One particular offshoot, the cannabis drinks market, has made inroads into both legal territories with THC-based ranges, and more restricted states with CBD-infused alternatives. Mixtures from hemp-charged water and sparkling weed wine to brightly labelled marijuana energy drinks and caffeinated shots are now widely available from online retailers, with London-based data and intelligence firm Prohibition Partners predicting this segment alone to be worth some $1.82 billion by the end of 2020.

Whilst cannabis and CBD drinks might not be stocked commonly (if at all) behind the bars of most establishments at the time of writing, the current lockdown scenario has seen a temporary wholesale pivot to a digital marketplace where specified, natural drinks have taken off. Perhaps boosted by the surge of interest in adjacent organic-based beverages like kombucha and kefir – which have seen consumers shrug off aversions to ingredients that might previously have been perceived askew – the market is now entering a period of growth that Prohibition Partners expects to exceed $5.8 billion by 2024.

“We are on the cusp of a drinks revolution – for centuries, legal socialising has either involved alcohol, or sobriety; outside of caffeine and nicotine, ultimately you either consumed alcohol in varying qualities, or you didn’t,” says Stephen Murphy, Co-founder and Managing Director – Prohibition Partners. “Cannabis infusions bring a third choice to leisure consumerism, and consumer research from Prohibition Partners finds that it’s a choice a lot of people plan to make. With global consumers now embracing health focused alternatives, the emerging cannabis drinks market is one of the most exciting sectors within the drinks industry; cannabis infusion will truly disrupt the drinks market and become a highly lucrative source of revenue for those companies ready to embrace it and a new source of social stimulation for consumers around the world.”

Polling 15,000 adults across North America and Europe for its Disrupting Drinks report, the group found: “one in four consumers or would-be consumers of other cannabinoid-based products would be willing to try cannabis-infused drinks, and 28% of people who have already tried infused beverage consumers say they intend to buy more infused consumer goods in the coming three months.” Further: “16% of people have not yet consumed cannabis-infused drinks but are keen to try them and say they will probably do so within the next 12 months.”

Owing to the lipstick effect theory that states consumers are more willing to purchase luxury goods in times of crisis as a means of comfort, the acceleration of the Covid-19 pandemic will likely play a large part in this rise according to the group’s findings. And whilst there is undoubtedly still a wider stigma hanging over most things cannabis related, bars that currently find themselves locked down, and have have turned to tailored delivery packages or specialist pop ups as alternatives, might well reconsider their stock, be that CBD beverages or the litany of other previously obscure mixes that have found surprise footholds in an increasingly open-minded mainstream wellness market.

Following nationwide legalisation across Canada in 2018, the cannabis industry now generates around $8.16 billion for the country’s economy according to data from StatsCan, with the illicit market down as a result to boot. At a time when the global economy’s downward spiral has intersected with an upward trajectory of perception around the naturally-occurring plant, we may well now see a wave of other nations reassessing their stance. If so, then the market will become quickly saturated as the bandwagon rolls through town, and the cannabis market’s true test will be to maintain mainstream interest beyond this. Only then we will see whether the growing swathe of CBD/THC brands are considered retrospectively as passing trend or a savvy investment – with those distributing now best placed to benefit at a later date from brand recognition than the inevitable sea of imitators.

Go deeper with discussions from the Prohibition Partners Live broadcast.

Words: Kristofer Thomas
Image: Nahil Naseer