Here’s a little secret for you: most people in the cannabis industry don’t smoke what they sell. This is because they can’t. Like most of us who hope to function, they can’t smoke the ultra-potent, high-THC strains that dominate dispensary shelves in California. Running a business is hard enough, even without being hopelessly stoned.
This essay was adapted from the Alta newsletter, delivered every Thursday.
“I’ve mostly been puffing on a 1:1 9 percent ratio,” confesses Martin Olive, proprietor of the Vapor Room, a small boutique dispensary in San Francisco. Translation for those who don’t speak weed: Olive smokes a strain that’s equal parts THC (the cannabinoid responsible for weed’s intoxicating effects) and CBD (the cannabinoid associated with calming effects). Compared with other commercial strains that clock in at 20 percent THC or more, 9 percent is a low, manageable dose, and with the CBD there to smooth out THC’s edges, the mellow result is what you might call (and some do) “dad weed” or “soccer mom pot.”
As cannabis-industry sales figures plateau in longer-term legal states like California, Colorado, and Oregon, some cannabis companies and entrepreneurs are leaning into light cannabis as the vehicle to reach consumers who don’t see their needs served by strong, high-potency weed. This untapped mass could be a huge new market—a belief partly fueled by the smoking habits of Olive and other industry insiders. If they don’t want the super-strong stuff they’re selling, why would a newbie?
“New users are afraid—they’re afraid of getting too high, afraid of getting in a social setting and making a fool of themselves,” says Lindsay MaHarry, a cannabis journalist and influencer. MaHarry says that of the many products companies send her way, the low-dose stuff is the biggest hit among her non-stoner friends. “Educated, sophisticated consumers believe that the space that’s really going to take off in the next couple of years is the low-dose market,” she says.
Another thing pushing some companies into the low-dose category is the desire to show investors the kind of hockey-stick-growth charts that Silicon Valley startups live (and occasionally die) by. If you could be the first to lure nonusers to cannabis, how big of a yacht could you buy?
In January 2020, shortly before the pandemic, Vireo Health, a publicly traded cannabis company, bet big on light cannabis with LiteBud, branded “America’s first microdose pre-roll.” Popular brands like Cann and Kikoko market high-end, low-dose beverages and “wellness products” like Tranquili-Tea.
Early returns, though, suggest that light cannabis is a light seller.
Low-THC products “have always been the worst-performing” products at the Colorado-based Honeybee Collective, according to Chris Becker, the organization’s cofounder and sales director. “The theoretical consumer for those products, if they exist, does not visit dispensaries,” Becker says. Even stores that specialize in low-THC products, like Sonoma County’s Solful, say that “light weed” constitutes no more than 25 percent of overall sales.
To use an overbroad comparison, some cannabis companies are trying to follow the lead of alcohol companies and find new customers with a weed version of hard seltzers like White Claw. This would be a way to reframe marijuana as a minimal-impact mood enhancer rather than a powerful, mind-altering substance.
Therein lies the conundrum: while light weed sounds totally logical to nonconsumers as well as some lifetime heads, it contradicts nearly all of the cannabis industry’s biggest success stories. What limited research exists suggests that consumers are THC-conscious—and want more for less money.
Consider two of the country’s buzziest cannabis brands, Cookies and Stiiizy. First made famous by high-potency, low-cost vape-oil pens, Stiiizy recently launched a line of pre-rolls called 40’s, inspired by corner-store malt liquor and boasting potencies in the 40 percent range. As for Cookies—a company that’s named after a famously potent strain and that draws crowds of fanboys camping out to be the first in line whenever a new shop opens—potency is the product.
“People basically walk into a club and say, ‘What’s the highest-percentage weed?’” says Neil Dellacava, the San Francisco–based business development manager at Herbl, a major California distributor. So-called frequent flyers account for the bulk of many dispensaries’ sales. These consumers don’t want “dad weed,” since they likely believe high THC means high quality.
“That is commonly what stores hear,” says Dellacava. “They have to buy based on the predominant consumer.”
Mid-to-late 2022 is also a very difficult time to convince producers and retailers to take a risk and devote limited shelf space to a proven slow mover. Cannabis retailers say they’re being squeezed to death by high taxes and an unregulated illicit market that’s anywhere from two to five times as big as the legal market. Meanwhile, capital has dried up. Investors want positive cash flow—or, at the very least, a plan to achieve it. And they don’t want to hear a plan that looks out further than three to five years, the length of time it may take to alter consumer habits and possibly support a White Claw–size low-dose product market.
“Long term, you’re going to see growth among this non-cannabis consumer segment, but I think it’s going to take a long time,” says Eli Melrod, the CEO and founder of Solful, which has two locations in Sonoma. Melrod estimates that about 20 to 25 percent of Solful’s sales are low-dose, but since low-dose customers also buy less, savvy brands know to carry a lot of the high-powered stuff.
“What you’ve seen is brands expecting there to be an immediate deluge of new consumers who’d never used cannabis before legalization running into dispensaries,” Melrod says. That just hasn’t happened, though.
Earlier this year, Country Cannabis, a company that features a line of pre-rolls and flower exactly in Martin Olive’s wheelhouse, won an award at the prestigious Emerald Cup—which has been banging the “It’s not just about THC” drum for years. And in a repudiation of the conventional wisdom, Country products are currently sold at 50 retailers and counting across the state. For some, this is a demonstration that there’s some demand for light weed.
“People are absolutely looking for less-psychoactive cannabis,” Country cofounder Jamie Feaster says. “They want to be social. If you take one or two puffs on a joint and are done, you lose out on the ritual of cannabis.”
To push a true crossover product, light cannabis may need the marketing power White Claw enjoyed, or it might need to be sold in places where all those potential weed dads and moms shop. Cannabis may need to drop its last vestiges of illicit “cool” and be sold at the local grocery store. That means waiting on Congress and Joe Biden to finally figure out federal legalization. No biggie.•