You might wonder why the editor of a UK-based drinks magazine for the on-trade is writing about the legalisation of cannabis on the back of something that has just happened 4,000 miles away.
Canada's legalisation of pot is, after all, not a drinks story, not a UK story and, since the products are only for home consumption, not an on-trade story either. But bear with me. Because the social and political tectonic plates are shifting, and whether we like it or not I think British bars and restaurants will be affected by what is clearly a growing trend, if not now then soon.
In years to come, we’ll look back on 2018 as the moment when cannabis finally went legit. Yes, it’s been legal in parts of the US for a while – and in Uruguay since 2017. But in January this year its cultivation and sale were finally permitted in California (population just under 40m) and, as of today, in Canada (36m).
Both of these two are particularly significant. California is richer than most countries and sets the pace for films, media and music, while Canada is a member of NATO and the G7. Both, in other words, carry clout.
Already in the US, with the burgeoning cannabis market, there’s an element of Gold Rush fever, with hundreds of brands and products desperate for a slice of a business growing at around 40% a year. What was reckoned to be a $3bn market in 2014 is estimated to become seven times that value by 2021.
It’s not all smokables, either. There’s been a huge growth in edible products, from tea to chocolate to pretzels, as well as vapes, tinctures and inhalers. New, sophisticated and exciting, these are pulling in consumers who wouldn’t be seen dead lighting up.
Drinks producers, too, are getting in on the act. This year, Constellation shelled out $4bn for a 40% share in the Canadian cannabis producer Canopy, while there are a growing number of products infused with THC (the active ingredient in cannabis) made by breweries and wine producers.
Currently, since it’s not legal to combine booze and cannabis in one product, these are all non-alcoholic. Though Cloud 9 brewery did launch an IPA with the non-intoxicant cannabidiol (CBD) in it this year.
A key attraction of cannabis for consumers is the product’s lack of side effects. Or, as the makers of (0% abv) cannabis-infused Sauvignon Blanc, Rebel Coast Winery put it, ‘...because hangovers suck’.
Particularly for health-obsessed 20-somethings, the chance to enjoy a sociable night smoking/eating/drinking weed with friends without suffering a thick head the next morning is a major plus.
And this, perhaps, is where the drinks world needs to start getting worried. Because for the last ten years – and the last five in particular – booze has been under sustained fire from the health lobby. Well-funded and dangerous, the latter are producing ever more negative research suggesting that there is no safe level of alcohol consumption.
That there is solid evidence over several decades suggesting that small amounts of alcohol in regulation can reduce the risk of heart attacks – the biggest killer of middle-aged people in the western world – is conveniently ignored.
Research is skewed, facts carefully selected and stories seeded into a press desperate for easy soundbites. The 1991 60 Minutes TV documentary about the French Paradox, which posited the idea that red wine is good for you and kick-started wine booms in the US and Asia, seems a very long time ago…
And while the health narrative of drink is on a downward arc, that of cannabis is on the rise. Already, it is decriminalised or sanctioned for medical use in a growing number of countries, from Australia to Portugal and Argentina to Germany. The movement towards full-on legalisation seems both irresistible and inevitable.
Admittedly, the UK is some way behind most other western democracies on this matter. But the government announced plans to relax the rules on cannabis medicines this summer, so a rubicon has already been crossed.
It took Canada 17 years to get from ‘medical’ to recreational, but if the likes of Canada and California are able to legalise it safely and profitably, the pace of change is sure to accelerate.
So, if you work in a UK bar, restaurant or pub, you might be wondering what goings-on in Montreal or Monterey have to do with you. Well, let’s just say it will be interesting to see how the growth in cannabis consumption in North America affects drink consumption in general, and the on-trade in particular.
Californian wineries I’ve spoken to are nervous about losing both sales and tourist visits to the new, trendy upstart. I’ve even seen prospective ‘weed appellation maps’. If cannabis can play the ‘provenance’ card as well as the ‘young and unstuffy’ card, it really will have all the bases covered.
Pot consumption might not affect sales of Opus One, but if your bread and butter business is that $10 bottle of Monday night sofa wine (or six-pack of beer) you probably have reason to be nervous.
As for hospitality, most of the evidence of the last ten years seems to show that it’s harder and harder to get the UK public out of their homes and into venues; that while the spend per visit might be going up, the number of eating- or drinking-out occasions is falling. It’s a key reason why the number of pubs is declining.
And since cannabis legalisation is (currently at least) for home use only, any growing popularity of weed would surely only enhance that trend. If you want to smoke/eat/drink pot, and you can only do it at home, that’s where you’re going to stay. It will pile even more pressure on the on-trade to create exceptional experiences that can’t be replicated at home.
We might only be at the start of this journey in the UK, but the end destination, I’d suggest, is inevitable – and if things go well in North America, we’re likely to get there sooner than we might expect.
So keep your eyes on what happens across the pond and pray to God that there’s still room for booze, bars and restaurants in a world where weed is flavour of the month.