The cannabis beverage industry is still in its infancy and showing signs of significant growth. Several major players have entered the market in recent years and new products are regularly launched. In the past, the focus has been on THC-infused drinks, but the wellness benefits associated with CBD have also increased interest in these drinks.
As the market grows, we can expect to see more innovation and variety in cannabis drinks. Let’s see where the cannabis beverage space is headed.
Why are cannabis drinks so popular?
Several features make cannabis drinks attractive to newcomers: ease of consumption; discretion; fewer health problems; and less stigma, as with methods such as smoking or vaping. It’s more socially acceptable to open a can than to light a joint or put drops of oil under your tongue. Additionally, for many, consuming a cannabis-infused beverage may simply be more enjoyable than other modes of consumption.
Cannabis beverages are a class of edibles and they have advantages over other edibles. Edibles have a slow onset of effects, which can lead to taking too much or feeling the effects too late, when they are no longer desired. The onset of effects with cannabis drinks is usually rapid because cannabinoids are mainly absorbed into the bloodstream through the mouth and under the tongue (sublingually), but also in the stomach. This means you feel the effects in real time instead of having to wait, making it easier to find the right dose and avoid overuse. The drinks come in different doses – 2.5mg to 25mg of THC or CBD are common, and the two cannabinoids are often combined in one product.
The general wellness market continues to grow, and like gums and oils, CBD or THC-infused beverages are meeting a demand. Consumers are often looking for beverages that are lower in alcohol, sugar and calories. Alternative edibles, such as baked goods and candies, are often considered unhealthy due to their high sugar or fat content. Drink labels that advertise claims such as “chemical-free”, “all-natural” or “organic” are a big hit with modern consumers.
Additionally, new technologies are emerging to help overcome processing and packaging challenges, and distribution channels such as pot shops, bars and restaurants have increased consumer exposure to a range of products.
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Societal and technical barriers for cannabis-infused beverages
It’s certainly not straightforward for producers of cannabis-infused beverages. The early days of the industry saw a multitude of formulation and packaging issues. Cannabis beverage production involves dissolving a cannabis oil in a liquid, and if the resulting oil droplets are too large, it can result in low potency.
There is also the problem that some of the oil may be absorbed by the packaging liner. The combined effect of these two issues raises concerns that consumers are not ingesting the level of THC or CBD promoted on the label.
There are also complex regulatory hurdles to overcome, including packaging design restrictions. For example, depending on regional restrictions, packaging may need to be childproof, opaque, durable or tamper evident.
One restriction hampering cannabis beverage sales in Canada is the strict limit on how much can be purchased at a time. Canadian consumers can only buy five 350ml (about 12oz) drinks at a time, regardless of the THC level. Although there are measures to increase the limit, there are concerns that this restriction will prevent shoppers from being able to try new products. Another concern in Canada is the limit of 10mg of THC per drink – there are concerns that this level is too low and could push consumers towards illegal products.
As with any cannabis product, there are safety issues associated with overuse. This is why it is essential to buy legal products and to check that a brand provides a certificate of analysis for each product.
Although the stigma is lower for beverages than for other cannabis products, it has not completely disappeared. Even in areas where cannabis is legal, there is still resistance to the purchase and use of medical and recreational cannabis. As such, it may be a long time before we see cannabis drinks competing with alcoholic beverage sales.
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How many people buy cannabis drinks?
A cannabis drink report by Headset compares sales to the overall beverage market. It shows a slow and steady growth of cannabis drinks in the United States, where they held a 1.1% share of the overall drinks market in January 2022, compared to 0.9% in January 2020. The growth was much more pronounced in the Canadian market due to more recent legalization, with cannabis beverages starting in 2020 with less than 0.2% of the beverage market, rising to almost 2% at the start of 2022.
Headset also provides insight into how various product segments are performing with the cannabis beverage market. In Canada, soft drinks dominate cannabis drinks with 50% market share. Cannabis-infused water is also a big seller, with a 20% share of cannabis drinks.
Things are a bit different in the US, with three segments each holding around a quarter of the cannabis-infused drink market: drops, mixes, elixirs and syrups: 28%; soft drinks: 26%; and iced tea, lemonade and fruit drinks: 22%.
Another interesting trend highlighted by Headset is the price of cannabis-infused drinks. Average item prices in the established US market have declined slightly over the past two years, from around $14.50 to $12. Canadian drinks started 2020 at a similar price, around CA$16 (US$12.30), but dropped dramatically to around $6 (US$4.60) in July 2020 and have remained at that price ever since. .
Where is the cannabis drink market headed?
There are a few big players in the cannabis beverage industry, including Keef, Cann, Levia, PTS, and Select, among others. These companies tend to cater to different target markets, of which there are many. For example, Keef’s shiny wrappers and sugary drinks will appeal to a different audience than Levia’s low-sugar sodas. One thing the big players have in common is their ability to secure strong production and distribution partnerships.
The scope of the beverage industry and the opportunity to grow within it means that other companies have ample opportunity to step in and shake things up. Just look at the programming of an event like the Cannabis Drinks Fair to see all new entrants. Small companies may struggle with production and distribution, but even if larger companies dominate the market, we might still see demands for unique products in small batches, similar to trends in the craft beer industry.
As is normal in an industry with several small players, there are frequent mergers and acquisitions, as well as alliances, partnerships and joint ventures. In the cannabis beverage space, there is a lot of product innovation and adoption of new technologies, especially in terms of processing and packaging.
The cannabis beverage industry is expected to continue to grow at a significant rate, although the speed at which it will grow is up for debate. Increased demand due to welfare trends and increased access to legalization are supported by advanced production technologies and ease of distribution. There are still hurdles to overcome, including strict rules and regulations and some stigma, especially in areas where recreational cannabis use remains illegal. While it will likely be a long time before cannabis drinks truly compete with the alcohol industry, it’s clear that THC and CBD-infused drinks are here to stay.