The results of Gallup’s annual Consumption Habits poll, conducted July 6-21, were released last month with the accompanying headline, “Nearly Half of U.S. Adults Have Tried Marijuana.” The analytics company further explained in its opening paragraph, “The percentage of U.S. adults who say they have tried marijuana has ticked up to 49%, the highest Gallup has measured to date. More than 50 years ago, just 4% said they had tried the drug, but that percentage surpassed 20% in 1977, 30% in 1985 and 40% in 2015.” Many other media outlets carried a similar theme that focused on the apparent increase in use. The Hill, for instance, ran a story with the headline, “Percentage of Americans who have tried marijuana rises to new high: Gallup.”
But perhaps a less misleading and more useful takeaway from the poll can be found in Gallup’s second paragraph, which reads, “A much smaller proportion of U.S. adults, 12%, say they ‘smoke marijuana.’ The percentage of current marijuana smokers has been steady in recent years, varying between 11% and 13% after increasing from the 7% Gallup initially measured in 2013.”
In other words, more people than ever have admitted to having tried cannabis, but actual usage has remained stubbornly consistent over time at about 12 percent. These numbers apply to four demographic groups of Americans: Millennials (born 1981-1996; 72.46 million), Gen X (born 1965-1980; 64.95 million), Baby Boomers (born 1946-1964; 70.68 million), and Traditionalists (born before 1946; 21.78 million). Obviously, these population groups are no longer growing. To the contrary, they are declining, so what explains the reported increase in the percentage of Americans who say they have tried cannabis at some point in time?
Simple math and the passage of time. “Generational patterns explain the increase in marijuana experimentation over the last five decades,” reported Gallup. “The oldest Americans living today, those born before 1945 whom Gallup calls ‘traditionalists,’ are much less likely than those in other birth cohorts to have tried marijuana, with just 19% saying they have done so. That compares with about half of millennials (51%), Generation Xers (49%) and baby boomers (50%).”
Factoring in that there has been “little change in the rate of marijuana experimentation among baby boomers and Gen X,” Gallup concluded, “With little change in generational rates of marijuana experimentation over time, the increase in the proportion of U.S. adults who have tried marijuana mainly reflects millennials replacing older traditionalists in the U.S. adult population.”
For Gallup, the trend portends a potential flattening of cannabis use sooner rather than later. “The percentage of Americans who have tried marijuana has steadily climbed in recent decades. Soon it should reach 50%, but it may not get much higher than that given the rates of experimentation have been steady around 50% in Gen Xers and among baby boomers. Half of millennials have also tried marijuana, and with many in that group approaching middle age, that proportion seems unlikely to increase in future years.
“As such,” it concluded. “Gen Z’s incidence of trying marijuana will likely determine the trajectory of the trendline. If Gen Z experimentation rates are similar to their predecessors’, the percentage may soon level off. It could, however, continue to grow if Gen Z and succeeding generations try marijuana at rates above 50%.”
Obviously, many factors known and unknown will influence future cannabis use, and federal legalization could easily increase the number of Boomers and Gen Xers trying cannabis for the first time. But the stable nature of that 12 percent “current use” number also suggests that the story of cannabis growth is less about people that have not tried it, and more about people that have tried it and moved on, and that marketing going forward needs to be less about creating new consumers than convincing former consumers to give it another shot. “The combined 2015-2021 data shows that 20% of millennials smoke marijuana, compared with 11% of Gen Xers, 9% of baby boomers and 1% of traditionalists,” noted Gallup. “These age differences, which have been consistent in Gallup’s polling, indicate that, at least historically, people tend to try marijuana at a younger age but as they get older, most no longer continue smoking it.”
Other non-age-related data points in Gallup’s Consumption Habits poll included:
For those interested in overlaying some real-world data onto the Gallup results, a recent article on cbdoracle.com by Lee Johnson analyzed data provided by several sources, including the Center for Behavioral Health Statistics and Quality and The National Survey on Drug Use and Health, as well as retail-derived data from industry firms Headset and Flowhub. The data is interesting if not always comparable with the Gallup poll, with cannabis use grouped according to age, gender, race, education level, employment, region and county type, and poverty level.
“The demographic breakdown of cannabis users shows a few things worth noting,” said Johnson in his conclusion. “Generally, cannabis users skew young, are more likely to be in metropolitan areas, on the west coast, unemployed and with some college or an associate degree, as well as male, low income and black or African American.
“However, many of the traditional differences – especially those by race and gender – are becoming increasingly irrelevant as society moves towards legalization and steps continue to be taken to combat both race and gender biases,” he added. “And it’s important to remember that while there are such (reasonably small) differences, most of these figures don’t take the relative size of the group in society, and many of them are liable to continue to change in the near future.
“In a nutshell, you can certainly target your marketing to groups more likely to buy, but entirely ignoring any group isn’t especially wise.”
Tom Hymes, CBE Senior Editor, is a Los Angeles-based writer and editor with over 20 years’ experience covering highly regulated industries. He was born and raised in New York City. He can be reached at [email protected].
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