Pot has gone retail.
In the 1990s, nameless plastic baggies marked with an X for potency, jars adorned with pot leaves and sexually suggestive imagery were the default marketing tactics for marijuana-related products. As legalization grows, with recreational marijuana legal for adults in 18 states and Washington, D.C., and medical marijuana legal in 37 states, investment dollars have poured in — and the largest players in the industry are putting out professionalized products.
The new trend is toward well-designed packaging, clear and regulated information labels, lab-tested ingredients, standardized dosing and modern branding.
Packaging considerations are taking their design cues from traditional consumer brands. The MX live resin cartridges by Moxie, a cannabis products brand based in California, come in a plastic and metal cylinder inside a colorful, modern, zebra-print box that wouldn’t look out of place on a perfume counter at a department store.
The lineup of weed edibles from Kiva Confections uses contemporary packaging techniques. Kiva cannabis chocolate bars, with an embossed brown wrapper, could fit in at the checkout at Whole Foods. Its Petra microdose 2.5 mg THC mints come in a container that could go in a jacket pocket and have been dubbed the “Mommy Mint.” Its makers say it takes the edge off without becoming overwhelming.
Rythm cannabis brand sells an eighth of an ounce of flower, the dried green bud that is evaporated and inhaled, in a black plastic jar with a shimmering label, similar to a beauty or hair product, and can fit into a purse or gym bag.
While all consumers benefit from safer, regulated, easier-to-use products, women who are cannabis users say they particularly appreciate the evolved approach.
"No more do I have to meet a creepy guy in a back alley to get a gram of no-name, gross weed."
"No more do I have to meet a creepy guy in a back alley to get a gram of no-name, gross weed," said Meagan Tyler Shreve, 35, who owns a catering business in Virginia. "Now I get to walk into a retail store and purchase top-shelf, designer weed."
"The changes are astronomical," she said.
Amid lockdowns and the anguish of Covid-19, legal cannabis sales grew 46 percent during 2020, hitting $17.5 billion, according to BDSA, a cannabis sales data platform, gaining some ground on the over $250 billion U.S. alcohol market. Several cannabis operators estimated sales doubled or even tripled during the pandemic.
Gen Z consumers overall saw the fastest growth during the pandemic, driven by how many were turning 21, the age at which cannabis can be legally purchased, where allowed. Destigmatization plays a role as well. Some young consumers have spent their formative years in states where adult recreational cannabis is legal and are more comfortable with it.
But there was also a particular uptick by women over men.
Year-over-year sales for Gen Z women, defined as those born in 1997 or later, grew the fastest in 2020 compared to any other cohort, at 151 percent, according to data from Headset, a cannabis analytics firm that collects aggregate information from point-of-sale registers. Gen Z men followed, at 118 percent. Millennials and Gen X round out the top four, with about 50 percent and 30 percent sales growth, respectively.
“The future of cannabis is female,” said Bethany Gomez, managing director at Brightfield Group, a cannabis market research agency. “An order of magnitude more.”
Shifting public attitudes and increasingly sophisticated design and packaging are helping drive the trend, Gomez said.
“It’s more acceptable, more compact and packaged in a way that’s more feminine,” Gomez said.
Flower dominates sales for both men and women. Female Gen Z consumers overindex slightly on pre-rolled joints, edibles and beverages, according to Headset data.
“That female consumer wants to be discreet, wants to have something not just to blow you away,” said Tessa Adams, chief marketing officer at Moxie.
Users cite product quality, convenience, portability and ease of use in the new lineup of products.
“I don’t know how to roll joints, so I get the cones,” or pre-rolled papers that are filled with ground marijuana and sealed, said Danielle Jordan, a 21-year-old who is studying to be an EKG technician. “They’re just so easy to stuff.”
She said the lab-tested product she got from one legal dispensary was very effective and didn’t make her cough or wheeze, compared to the unknown brands from street dealers.
Jordan appreciates the euphoric feelings of marijuana. She recalled a time recently where she and her friends went boating and consumed cannabis.
"I just got super high, just floating and having a good time. We were all relaxed, got food, tanning. It all felt good," she said. When Jordan smokes, she says, "I just feel calmness coming over me... I don't feel like I have to be on the move."
Female consumers also said they use cannabis to self-medicate for diagnosed conditions including anxiety, anorexia, attention difficulties, pancreatic cancer and post-traumatic stress disorder. Some said they had poor success with prescribed pills or therapy and preferred to use marijuana instead.
Sydney Cheney, a 21-year-old customer service representative, said she recently took cannabis to deal with the stress of going grocery shopping. “It helped with the anxiety of large crowds of people,” she told NBC News in an online message. She said she has ADHD and also finds cannabis products help her focus and meet deadlines.
Doctors say more research needs to be done to support these claims.
"Self-medication with cannabis is commonly reported in patients with a variety of psychiatric disorders, including anxiety disorders and PTSD," said Dr. Sachin Patel, director of psychiatry at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tennessee, who has studied the effects of cannabis on the brain. "However, whether this approach has true therapeutic efficacy or has long-lasting negative consequences is not clear."
Negatives could include the desensitization of some of the brain’s cannabinoid receptors, involved in feelings of well-being and pleasure, which could actually increase anxiety over time, while increasing tolerance and use, Patel said.
On Wednesday, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., introduced a draft bill to decriminalize marijuana at the federal level but allow states to impose their own prohibitions. Overall, cannabis operators’ hopes for federal decriminalization are growing.
The opportunity to operate at a truly national level brings the chance for sharing a product they believe in with a greater audience and increased profits, but also heightened exposure and risks. The industry is keen to focus on becoming like any other common consumer good and building name recognition and trust.
“Using bikinis and being offensive is a thing of the past,” when it combines to marketing marijuana products, said Kristi Palmer, co-founder of Kiva Confections. “Cannabis brands and companies are getting with the program and professionalizing in a way that welcomes women into the space, thank God.”