With a double-digit annual growth rate and products available nation-wide, cannabidiol (CBD) presents the cannabis industry with an opening to mainstream consumers and distribution channels, especially nonpsychoactive CBD derived from hemp. With a broad variety of health claims, CBD products give the industry access to a cross-section of consumers using prescription medications and shopping for supplements, nutraceuticals, analgesics and other OTC solutions.
And consumers are taking notice. As we found in our latest research, nearly half (47 percent) of those self-identified as medical cannabis users already check for CBD levels while making a purchase. The opportunity is being met by new CBD-only products at dispensaries, the creation of CBD-focused cannabis brands, and the growth of alternative retail channels. Yet the path forward is not without obstacles.
If CBD is to gain mainstream acceptance, industry players will need to navigate several issues. The first and most obvious is the shifting legal and regulatory environment. Second, consumers demand accessible and consistent products. Third, marketers must appeal to and educate a receptive yet ill-informed customer base.
Even if the limiting legal and regulatory environment remains unchanged, CBD is poised for growth. Of course change is the only constant. In a historic first, the FDA just approved Epidiolex, the only non-synthetic medication with an active ingredient (CBD) derived from cannabis. Epidiolex resides in a grey area typical of CBD products, including those from hemp: approved yet technically illegal. In a recent interview with Vice, spokesperson Rusty Payne made no bones about the DEA’s current perspective: “Hemp is a made up word”. Nothing about the Controlled Substances Act distinguishes between psychoactive and nonpsychoactive much less extracts and derivatives. However the 2018 Farm Bill, currently under review by a joint Congressional committee, may clarify matters. The bill would legalize “industrial hemp” (containing a negligible percent of THC) and all related products. An FDA approved medication and an industry-friendly Farm Bill imply government legitimacy, which can only help assuage skeptical consumers. Not having to worry about getting caught up in a raid by the local sheriff won’t hurt either.
For the industry to capitalize on hemp-derived CBD, consumers need access to trustworthy and consistent products. Too many CBD products available on the market today are mislabeled, scantly tested, and drawn from questionable sources. A headline like “Fake CBD Poisoned At Least 52 People” will give anyone pause. Products sold online can be even less reliable. To drive out bad actors, industry leaders must push for coherent best practices. A joint effort between representatives of retail outlets, growers, processors, and manufacturers would bring all the key stakeholders under the tent. Initiatives such as the U.S. Hemp Guidance Program can align specific segments. Existing models like the FDA’s “Current Good Manufacturing Practices” (CGMPs) can be used as a roadmap. The industry will be best served having demonstrated success defining and aligning on standards prior to inevitable regulatory action by state and federal governments. Such proactive efforts will earn a seat at the table with regulators. Policymakers unfamiliar with the benefits and treatment options of CBD will craft the rules. All the more reason for the industry to take action now.
Rigorous standards will also aid the industry’s efforts to educate a potentially massive customer base. Consumers demand easily accessible information about OTC supplements and nutraceuticals and will expect to find the same degree of in-depth data about CBD products. Yet at times, web sites list barely more than a customer might find on the product package. Transparent product information must be made available online. Further, while each individual’s experience with CBD will inevitably vary, the industry must take out as much guesswork as possible. Consumers will not immediately grasp the nuances of CBD products, such as isolate vs. full-spectrum and bioavailability. Even the basics won’t make sense to most. For example, Honest Marijuana built a calculator to decrypt CBD oil dosage amounts. To target pain relief, this handy tool arrives at a recommended dose based on the user’s weight, product serving size, and amount per serving. While a laudable effort, new users won’t run a four-part equation to determine how many drops of CBD oil to take. The consumer needs simple on-pack and online guidance. However the industry must go beyond providing information. Customers need familiar faces.
As we found in our June 2018 study on the edibles category (the most accessible form for a mainstream audience) the front-line associate plays a key educational role today. Fifty-six percent of edibles customers start their purchase journey speaking with a dispensary employee. This is especially important in a category that includes tinctures, sprays, topicals, vape pens, patches… you name it. However, CBD marketers can’t rely solely on personal interactions as the category scales up.
Fortunately, a wealth of existing and potential mainstream influencers can testify to the efficacy of CDB. Celebrities such as Olivia Wilde, Whoopi Goldberg, and Gwyneth Paltrow are vocal supporters. From a medical perspective, the more voices like Dr. Sanjay Gupta the better. Lobbyists can push states lacking a robust medical marijuana program to borrow from the approach in Illinois and streamline access to CBD as a substitute to prescription painkillers. The sporting world offers intriguing means to converse with mass market consumers as well. The World Anti-Doping Agency removed CBD from its list of prohibited substances for 2018, opening up the possibility that World Cup players and Olympians could lend public support. The upstart BIG3 basketball league did so in June, becoming the first US pro sports league to permit the use of CBD. Forward-thinkers may consider partnering with NBA Players Association executive director Michele Roberts. Can she negotiate for CBD to be permitted for NBA players? Finally, mental health causes align with the positive message of CBD as a preventative and palliative treatment option, none more viscerally than organizations like the Veterans Cannabis Project.
Hemp-derived CBD offers a tremendous opportunity to tap into a mass market customer base albeit not without external and internal hurdles. While the industry awaits the latest legal gyrations, steps should be taken to fuel the momentum of CBD products. The factors impacting growth within the industry’s direct control hinge primarily on willingness and ability to align internally and put forth a corresponding coherent and customer-focused message to the market. Through efforts like those called out above, the industry can deliver on CBD’s promise.