What You Need to Know About Legal Marijuana

It is impacting laws, marketing and the U.S. snacking industry.

June 24, 2019

ALEXANDRIA, Va.—U.S. consumers are interested in cannabis, and laws are changing to meet consumer demands, according to Nielsen, the research organization.

Recently, Illinois lawmakers approved recreational marijuana use for adults, and sales of cannabis products containing the psychoactive element, THC, will be on the market beginning in January 2020. Despite its classification as a Class 1 controlled substance under federal law, 11 states and Washington D.C. have legalized recreational use of marijuana. That presents big opportunities for the American food and beverage market, especially the snack and confectionery category.

America is a snacking nation. Within the U.S., sales of both salty and sweet snacks have increased during the 52 weeks ended April 27, 2019, with salty snacks reaching sales of $29.9 billion and sweet snacks hitting $6.5 billion. But could the “munchies” driven by marijuana use boost sales even more?

Marijuana consumption is proven to increase a person’s appetite and the enjoyment of food. Sales data from within the U.S. Census divisions where cannabis has been legalized support the munchies’ effect. Nielsen data show that growth rates for both candy and snacks are rising faster in these areas than in geographies where cannabis has yet to be legalized for recreational use.

For manufacturers and retailers, American consumers’ hunger for snacks alongside legal cannabis consumption can present an opportunity for cross-selling, but it's not just cannabis alone that could affect the industry. Edible hemp-based cannabidiol (CBD) products, including the cannabinoid compound in marijuana with little to no THC, present a $6 billion opportunity for the food and beverage industry. Nielsen plans to continue monitoring the impact of marijuana and edible CBD products and how it impacts the snacking industry.
CBD seems to be available almost everywhere and marketed as a variety of products, including drugs, food, dietary supplements, cosmetics, pet food and other animal health products.

But the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), maintains that CBD products that are ingested or for which health claims are made must be FDA-approved before they can be offered for sale. The FDA recognizes the public’s interest in cannabis and cannabis-derived compounds, but before it approves CBD products it wants answers to questions about the science, safety and quality of products containing CBD. The FDA is seeking feedback following a recent FDA hearing through a public docket that is open for comment until July 16, 2019.

Currently, only one prescription drug product, which is used to treat rare forms of epilepsy, is FDA approved. No other CBD products have received an FDA evaluation regarding safety and effectiveness for specified health issues, the proper dosages, how they could interact with other drugs or foods or whether they have dangerous side effects or other concerns.

The FDA wants to know specifically:

  • The effects CBD could cause in the body, such as toxicity to the liver, when someone ingests CBD regularly over a long period of time. It’s unclear how risks might be managed when CBD is used widely, without medical supervision and not in accordance with FDA-approved labeling.
  • The cumulative exposure to CBD if consumers use it across a broad range of consumer products. For example, what happens if you eat food with CBD in it, use CBD-infused skin cream and take other CBD-based products on the same day? What if you use these products daily for a week or a month?
  • The effects of CBD on special populations (e.g., the elderly, children, adolescents, pregnant and lactating women) or types of animals (e.g., species, breed, or class), including pets.

Authorities are concerned that misleading or false claims regarding CBD products may lead consumers to put off getting important medical care. The agency has tested the chemical content of cannabinoid compounds in some of the products, and many were found to contain lower levels of CBD than claimed.