Cannabis isn’t denting alcohol sales so far, but drinkable THC might change that

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Is legal pot putting a dent in alcohol sales?
WATCH: Is legal pot putting a dent in alcohol sales? – Feb 7, 2019

Provinces with the highest rate of legal cannabis consumption don’t appear to be drinking less under legalization — at least, so far.

That doesn’t surprise observers, who predict that the key to replacing at least some alcohol consumption with cannabis involves a cannabis beverage, something that won’t be available until later this year at the earliest.

The Atlantic provinces started legalization with much better developed cannabis retail networks than the rest of Canada — as well as much less of a grey market to contend with compared to provinces like B.C.

In consequence, they’ve been selling much more legal pot, on a per capita basis, than provinces in other regions. Top of the list is P.E.I., where cannabis sales reached $13.83 per resident in the first six weeks of legalization, edging out Nova Scotia’s $11.34. (The equivalent figure was $2.53 in Quebec and $1.54 in Ontario.)

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But all that spending hasn’t cut into P.E.I.’s alcohol consumption at all — provincial liquor stores took in $27.9 million in the last quarter of 2018, as opposed to $27.3 million in the last quarter of 2017. From Oct. 17 to the end of 2018, Islanders spent $3.5 million on cannabis.

New Brunswick had similar results: alcohol sales in the last quarter of 2018 rose slightly in comparison to the same quarter in 2017.

Nova Scotia will release alcohol sales figures later this month.

WATCH: Could pot legalization in Canada drive down the price of beer?
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Could pot legalization in Canada drive down the price of beer?

The key to having cannabis cut into alcohol consumption is making it drinkable, argues Brock University business professor Michael Armstrong.

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“One of the issues is getting a beverage that has some of the characteristics that people are used to with alcohol. You start drinking something alcoholic, you start getting a buzz relatively quickly,” he said.

Such a beverage would have to be based on water-soluble THC, which would be quickly absorbed and give the user immediate feedback, unlike fat-soluble THC, which takes much longer. All THC for ingestion at the moment is fat-soluble.

A beverage eliminates the disadvantages of smoking and edibles: the smell and mess of smoking as well as the slow onset of edibles.

“With cannabis edibles, like brownies, there’s more of an extended delay. You eat it and have to wait a certain amount of time before it takes effect, which is one of the reasons newcomers sometimes overdo it,” Armstrong explained.

So far, cannabis beverages haven’t been available at all in Canada or on a large scale in the United States.

Federal regulations for factory-made drinkables in Canada won’t be finalized until the fall.

And the fact that marijuana is federally illegal in the U.S. has meant that large companies haven’t been able to develop cannabis beverages, though they’re sometimes sold by local companies. (Apart from everything else, it’s not clear whether patents on the processes involved would be upheld in U.S. courts.)

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Draft regulations published in December hint at what Canadian cannabis beverages might be like. Under the proposed rules, beverages would be limited to 10 milligrams of THC per container, come in plain, child-resistant packaging and not be marketed using words associated with alcohol, like “wine,” or a brand associated with alcohol.

That complicates marketing a de-alcoholized beer with THC, points out Brock University health policy historian Dan Malleck.

“In the draft regulations, they’re not allowing the words ‘beer’ or ‘wine’ to be on a cannabis-infused beverage,” said Malleck.

“That doesn’t seem fair. Even if it doesn’t have alcohol in it, it has hops and all that. It’s beer.”

Could an apple-based THC beverage be marketed as cider?

Ottawa-based cannabis lawyer Trina Fraser calls the question “arguable.”

“You’d have to make the case that there is no reasonable association with alcohol,” she wrote. “You could try arguing that ‘cider’ is understood to be non-alcoholic and the term ‘hard cider’ is used if alcohol is present.”

Over time, Armstrong says he expects cannabis beverages to take market share away from beer and coolers more than other alcohol categories.

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Malleck expects larger brewers to lose more market share to drinkable cannabis than small, artisanal brewers.

“I don’t think craft brewers would see too much to worry about right now because of the artisanal language around craft brewing. People go to enjoy the beer but also have a flavour experience,” he explained.

Having said that, some are seeing it as an opportunity. Malleck points out that Hamilton, Ont., craft brewer Collective Arts said this week that it planned to launch a sister company that would produce cannabis-infused beverages.

In a poll last November conducted by Ipsos exclusively for Global News, nearly half of regular drinkers — 45 per cent — say they will drink less alcohol now that pot is legal.

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That would be a relatively healthier choice, scientists say — cannabis is associated with far fewer health problems than alcohol, at least based on what we now know.

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The Canadian numbers that we have, for now, parallel what’s been seen in the United States.

recent study by the U.S. Distilled Spirits Council, an industry group, found that alcohol sales in Colorado, Washington state and Oregon weren’t affected by the legalization of recreational marijuana there. Beer sales fell in all three states, but that’s in line with broader U.S. trends, the study says.

A 2017 study showed that beer and wine sales fell in states that legalized medical marijuana in the aftermath of the change and also in nearby counties in other states, but the full reduction took two years to completely take effect.

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The alcohol industry certainly has its eye on cannabis.

There is “a potential for some current beverage alcohol consumers to migrate away from that category and toward marijuana when it becomes legal,” according to a study of the Canadian market by Deloitte.

In November, global alcohol giant Constellation Brands made a $5-billion investment in cannabis producer Canopy Growth, representing a 38 per cent share in the company. The move was widely seen — at least in part — as an attempt to future-proof the company against marijuana cutting into its market.

“The way industry is thinking is that you’re a beer brewer, your market growth is pretty slow — here’s an opportunity to move into something else that’s kind of similar but different enough that it has a lot of growth potential,” Armstrong explained. “Conversely, there’s a risk that new products could take some of your existing customers.

“That’s an opportunity or a threat, depending on the company’s perspective.”

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The relationship between cannabis and alcohol consumption isn’t well understood by science, with some studies arguing that one substitutes for the other, some arguing that it doesn’t and others finding no connection.

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What effect will widely available, legal cannabis have on drinking over time?

“We don’t know what percentage of social drinkers will switch. In the short term, probably lots will try. In the longer term, it’s going to depend on what products get produced.”

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