In a time when adult-use cannabis seems to get all the attention, it’s important to remember that many people use the plant as medicine. There are millions of medical cannabis patients across the country, but this demographic is often cast aside as the market swells with high-potency products fueled by the latest hype.
“In my experience, when markets shift to adult use, that seems to become the focus,” said patient advocate Nikki Lawley, a medical consumer and founder of Nikki and the Plant.
“Budtenders aren’t always able to differentiate and will recommend what they like best versus what is best for the person. This is dangerous because not everyone wants to get high; many of us are trying to get well.”
Fortunately, for people like Lawley, medical cannabis is front and center in a recent report from New Frontier Data, which outlines the importance of the patient’s point of view. From Doctor to Dispensary: A Complete Picture of Medical Cannabis Consumers surveyed 1,874 medical cannabis users across the country, examining their purchase habits, reasons for consumption, and healthcare decisions.
The report’s authors note how the data should be of particular interest to insurance companies that have been called on by many patients to cover the cost of medical cannabis. However, the information is also helpful for brands and retailers seeking to bridge the gap with medical patients.
The report couldn’t come at a better time for patients like Lawley. The cannabis industry is at a turning point as federal reform inches closer every day, and Lawley argues real-world experience is far more compelling than many peer-reviewed studies.
“Medical patient data is key—it matters far more than testing done on rats,” she said. “With this anecdotal evidence, the industry can understand what’s working and evolve with this information in mind.”
Brands: get to know your audience
Understanding why medical patients are turning to cannabis is a crucial jumping-off point for operators hoping to reach this demographic. Both physical conditions and mental health issues were prevalent, but chronic pain is the most prominent use case.
According to the New Frontier Data report, 47 percent of respondents used cannabis for pain, while 22 percent said they were consuming it for anxiety/panic attacks. Both depression and sleep were next on the list, with 9 percent, respectively. Post-traumatic stress disorder, neurological disorders, gastrointestinal disorders, cancer, autoimmune issues, and eye disease rounded out the list. It’s important to note that those surveyed could rely on cannabis to help them through more than one condition.
While nearly half of the respondents said they used cannabis to ease pain, current market trends may not reflect that.
“I was surprised that the sleep indication was not more popular. Our fastest-growing SKU’s are related to sleep,” said Guy Rocourt, co-founder and CEO of wellness-focused brand Papa & Barkley.
Indeed, cannabis products marketed toward getting a better night’s rest are on the rise across the board. CBN, a minor cannabinoid created when THC is oxidized, has exploded in popularity thanks to its perceived sedative effects.
In fact, according to industry analytics firm BDSA, “in the first quarter of 2022, the market had 70 percent more CBN-containing products than in Q1 of 2021 across Illinois, Massachusetts, and Michigan, as well as in the mature markets of California, Colorado, Nevada, and Oregon.”
Demand for CBG has also increased. The cannabinoid is believed to have several medicinal uses, with studies showing promise in treating glaucoma, inflammation, high blood pressure, neuroprotection, and even attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder
Despite being the star of the show for most adult-use consumers, THC levels are rarely the primary factor driving medical cannabis sales. The New Frontier Data report found 55 percent of medical consumers say minor cannabinoids and terpenes are somewhat or very important versus just 39 percent of recreational users. Only 11 percent of medical consumers feel these compounds are not important, while 18 percent of recreational consumers said the same.
The New Frontier Data report also showed that medical consumers are likely to purchase products with higher levels of CBD versus THC, primarily for CBD’s wide array of therapeutic benefits.
The demand for CBD and minor cannabinoids should be noted by brands, especially at a time when high-potency products continue to flood the industry. For example, 1:1 CBD:THC flower strains are often desired by consumers but nowhere to be found on dispensary shelves. As the market evolves, it’s imperative that brands consider the needs of all consumers, not just ones who want the highest THC potency.
Lawley notes that brands often need to consider patients in their product development phase, pointing out the struggles many endure just to access their goods.
“Packaging is a huge issue,” she said. “The font is often hard to read, while the packages themselves are difficult to manipulate. Patients need to be able to open their medicine. So many packages require scissors, knives, and Herculean strength! It should not be that hard to access my medicine.”
Lawley suggests brands consult with patients at the research and development phase and offer them a seat at the table—especially if they are creating a therapeutic product.
“Patients need to be part of a successful cannabis launch,” Lawley argued. “Our input actually matters. If companies want to be medically focused, who better to be part of the team than a patient?”
For retail, education and consistency are key
Regardless of the products brands introduce to the market, it’s up to the retail buyers to ensure their customers get what they need. Understanding the demand for pain-relieving topicals, high-CBD flower strains, or CBN gummies is one thing, but the onus is on the dispensaries to connect the dots between consumers and producers.
For most medical consumers, it appears that when they find something that works for them, they stick with it. The New Frontier Data report found 70 percent of patients seek out a specific blend of cannabinoids and terpenes while shopping for cannabis. Fifty-nine percent indicated they look for the same strain they’ve purchased previously during subsequent visits.
In an age of hype, where many younger adult-use consumers are seeking the “hot new thing,” it’s imperative that retailers offer a modicum of consistency when it comes to their catalogs. Popular products should always earn a re-stock, but it’s essential that buyers recognize smaller trends among other demographics.
Dispensaries may have to go the extra mile to get crucial information to their customers. Testing requirements vary from state to state, meaning not all products have terpene content listed on their packaging. Some may do this independently, but it’s not guaranteed.
Lawley has been a vocal advocate for establishing standards for the availability of certificates of analysis (COAs) and terpene profiles on individual products. She argues this would help patients buy something with better potential to alleviate their ailments.
Lawley would also like to see retailers better equip their staff to keep medical patients safe and empowered in purchasing.
“I would love to see a medical person at the dispensaries,” she said. “Many drug-to-drug interactions are contraindicated for cannabis use. Every budtender should have a list of medications that should not be used with cannabis.”
Lawley also called for dispensaries to offer more workshops and educational opportunities for consumers of all types, covering the basics like consumption methods or the best resources for in-depth information.
Timeka Drew, founder and CEO of Biko Flower, also a medical patient herself, agrees that more dispensary operators need to increase awareness for medical consumers, particularly in adult-use states.
“Retailers have so much power when it comes to supporting often-forgotten medical cannabis patients in recreational markets,” she said.
“Highlighting products that are formulated specifically for medical consumers in markets where they might have different compliance parameters—such as California, where medical patients can purchase products ten times more potent than recreational consumers—as well as providing education about what makes these products unique is critical to ensure patients get access to the type of cannabis medicine they need.”
Drew and Rocourt also stated that medical consumers who qualify for a state-issued program might not realize it, even though it may offer them access to different products or lower their final bill.
“Retailers need to make the benefits of having a medical prescription more obvious,” Rocourt proclaimed.
“Retailers don’t make it easy for patients to understand discounts available to them. In many markets, retailers don’t even have a separate medical side, citing that there aren’t enough medical patients to justify having two systems. This is a self-fulfilling approach—if they don’t offer real benefits for medical patients, no one will bother to get a prescription.”
Medical cannabis offers hope and healing, but access is not guaranteed
Rocourt and Drew added that support from healthcare providers and insurance companies would likely lead to more patients registering for state medical cannabis programs. Lawley vehemently agrees, having lobbied unsuccessfully for years to get her medical cannabis purchases reimbursed by workman’s comp after suffering a traumatic brain injury while working as a pediatric nurse.
At a time when prescription drug abuse is at an all-time high, it would behoove these key players to increase access to safer alternatives like cannabis. According to the New Frontier Data report, 54 percent of respondents replaced some or all of their prescriptions with cannabis. Fifty-nine percent used it as an alternative to over-the-counter medications, mostly choosing cannabis over NSAID pain relievers and sleep aids.
A whopping 93 percent of medical consumers felt that cannabis helped their conditions, with 57 percent reporting the plant significantly improved symptoms. Despite the overwhelming evidence of the benefits of medical cannabis, and widespread availability, many patients find their life-changing medicine to be cost-prohibitive, furthering the cycle of prescription drug use.
The New Frontier Data report’s authors point out this catch-22 early in the text:
“The Federal Schedule 1 status of cannabis means that it has no recognized medical value. At the same time, almost every state in the U.S. allows for some form of medical cannabis use. This contradiction has resulted in millions of medical cannabis patients with the approval to use cannabis by their state and their doctor, but no access to insurance reimbursement for this medicine, which is usually highly taxed.” (Full Story)