Cannabis edibles will be legal for sale in Canada later this year, and the news media is breathless with anticipation.
Marijuana-infused food will "radically transform food and drink in the new year," declares the National Post. "The market is enormous," according to a recent Maclean's headline. "It is just a matter of time before the edible market will represent the majority of the cannabis market in Canada," proclaims Dalhousie University food professor Sylvain Charlebois in a recent article.
Canadian demand for commercial-grade, cannabis-infused food will be significant, no doubt.
But market data from four U.S. states shows consumer spending on cannabis edibles has been completely eclipsed by spending on another product category that will also become legal in Canada in 2019: concentrated forms of cannabis such as hash, shatter, budder or wax, and — above all — vape pen cartridges loaded with cannabis oil.
Sales of cannabis edibles in Arizona, California, Colorado and Oregon reached US$685 million between January and October of 2018, according to data provided by cannabis market data firm BDS Analytics. But consumers in those states spent more than US$1.4 billion on cannabis concentrates during the same period.
Most of that spending — US$972 million — was on cannabis vape pens and their accompanying pre-filled oil cartridges. These devices are to the old-fashioned joint what e-cigarettes are to cigarettes: discreet, user-friendly gadgets that turn small amounts of cannabis oil into an inhalable vapour, less stinky than smoke and easier to inhale.
The remaining US$446 million was spent on other marijuana concentrates such as shatter, wax and hash oil. These are often used for "dabbing," a more involved form of consumption that uses specialized equipment to deliver an especially potent hit of cannabis extract. (Dabbing is a relatively recent phenomenon, but cannabis concentrates are far from new — hashish is another cannabis concentrate that might be more familiar to older users.)
"All evidence from (Canada's) friends in the south would indicate that concentrates, and especially vape (pens), will be a bigger market than edibles," says Greg Shoenfeld, vice-president of operations with BDS Analytics.
That's music to the ears of Rosy Mondin, CEO of Burnaby, B.C.-based Quadron Cannatech Corp., which manufactures extraction devices used to make concentrated cannabis oil and is developing cannabis vape pen hardware for the future Canadian market.
Mondin sees huge potential for cannabis concentrates delivered through vape pens, especially among novice cannabis users in search of a smokeless, hassle-free way to consume.
"Over the years, when I've offered friends of mine a puff of a joint, they've always said 'No'. If I've offered an edible, over the years, they've always said 'No,'" she says.
"But now with the vape pens... these same friends who always said, 'No,' would always say, 'Hey, do you happen to have one of those pens with you? Can I try a pen?' Because it's easy, because it hits you faster than an edible. You can control how much you take."
Existing data suggests many Canadian cannabis users are already using concentrated forms of the drug.
The federal government's 2018 Canadian Cannabis Survey polled nearly 13,000 Canadians about their cannabis use. Among respondents who used cannabis, 26 per cent said they had used hashish or kief (a powdery cannabis concentrate), 19 per cent used solid concentrates, and 17 per cent used liquid concentrates. Forty-one per cent reported using edibles in the past year, and 82 per cent used regular dried cannabis bud.
Twenty-six per cent of respondents said they had used a vape pen in the past year to consume cannabis for non-medical purposes. (Despite being unregulated, the devices are widely available through the illicit market.)
Opponents of cannabis legalization have always pointed toward edibles as a dangerous category, says Greg Shoenfeld of BDS Analytics.
"Time and time again, they've been looking at edibles to take over the market, and it's never really played out in the data. Over time, edibles have begun to capture a greater share of the market, but they're still a distant third category," he says, adding cannabis enthusiasts might use the products in different ways.
"I think that there's a lot of consumers out there that may be consuming a combination of products, be it vape (pens), flower, edibles, pre-rolls — they could be consuming all of them, but the frequency of consumption of, say, a vape product might be more frequent than how often they're eating edibles," Shoenfield says.
Solomon Israel is a full-time reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press and for two years, the lead writer for Free Press cannabis news site, The Leaf News. He continues to provide coverage of the cannabis beat while covering business in the city and province.