1st February 2022
By Roland Sebestyén

A recent “systematic review” has revealed the main reasons behind why cannabis consumers continue to buy the drug from illicit sources, despite the continued growth of regulated markets and the growing number of countries implementing user-friendly drug policies.

Recreational cannabis is now legal in a number of countries and jurisdictions around the world – with a number of other countries poised to join them. However, it is not uncommon for the illicit cannabis market to continue to thrive in these markets.

For example, despite legalising cannabis for recreational uses in 2018, less than half (48%) of Canadian cannabis consumers report making their last purchase from a legal source. Further,

Researchers of the study, published in the Journal of Cannabis Research today, found that while price does influence choices, demand is relatively inelastic. Generally, cannabis users are looking for cheap (low-cost), unregulated products to avoid reducing consumption.

The researchers assessed a number of relevant studies – including studies that assessed non-price-related factors, such as quality, route of administration, product recommendations and packaging.

For this review, the authors screened a total of 4,839 titles and abstracts after duplicates were removed. Ninety-six articles were eligible for full-text review; of these, 61 were excluded.

The majority of the included studies focused on price-related attributes whereas three studies contributed a large proportion of findings for non-price attributes.

They found that, beyond pricing, we know very little about why people choose a specific product; while it does appear that perceived quality has something to do with the process, the authors of the review claim that more studies are needed to fully understand the definition for cannabis quality.

Quality can be determined by a number of different factors, including, potency, presence of contaminants or pesticides, curing process, ability to give the desired effect, size, visual properties, and aroma.

However, the definition of a “quality” strain is not exact.

Unsurprisingly, when consumers were faced with a choice between different sources of cannabis offering the same product at different prices, people chose the product at a lower cost.

While, as already stated above, the price was the most researched attribute, other attributes like characteristics of quality, packaging, route of administration, and product recommendations also influenced purchase decisions.

The researchers refute the “urban legend” that illegal cannabis is of supposedly better quality than those sold through the regulated market. The report says there is insufficient evidence to support the claim “as the quality was either insufficiently defined or not examined in the studies reviewed here.”

The researchers concluded that “demand is generally inelastic with respect to price, but the degree of elasticity varies by age, gender, and experience with cannabis.

“Preferences were greater for products with higher potency of either THC or CBD, but this also changed based on reason for use and gender.

“There is insufficient evidence to understand the true impact of other attributes on the choices of cannabis consumers and the relationship between attributes. Going forward, additional research will support a more thorough understanding of these attributes, which can offer a better explanation of consumers’ thoughts and opinions.”

These findings could help lawmakers to refine their policies on cannabis legalisation in a way that would better meet consumer needs. Doing so would help to close off black market supply and create a thriving regulated market designed to support public health.

Donnan, J., Shogan, O., Bishop, L. et al. Characteristics that influence purchase choice for cannabis products: a systematic review. J Cannabis Res 4,9 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1186/s42238-022-00117-0

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