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When Will Restaurants Start Capitalizing on the Munchies by Marketing to Stoners?

Perhaps sooner than you think

The inevitable has happened: Legalizing recreational weed sparked a 3.1 percent increase in ice cream purchases, a 4.1 percent increase in cookie purchases and a 5.3 percent increase in chip purchases in Colorado, Oregon and Washington.

It’s hardly the first time legal weed has been linked to increased fast-food sales: In 2017, Green Market Report and Consumer Research Around Cannabis studied 4.7 million people who purchased legal cannabis in the last four weeks and found that a whopping 43 percent had also eaten at McDonald’s (another 18 percent opted for Taco Bell, and 17.8 percent went to Wendy’s).

In 2014, Peyton Manning even credited legal weed in Colorado for the success of the 21 Papa John’s locations that he bought in Denver shortly before voters passed the weed-friendly Amendment 64.

It probably goes without saying that weed-induced munchies, which we previously explained in scientific detail, have almost everything to do with this link between legalization and increased junk food sales:

“Scientists believe the effect is caused by the psychoactive component of cannabis, tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), and its interaction with cannabinoid receptors in the brain  —  mostly with the receptors known as CB1 in the brain’s olfactory bulb. This interaction, research from 2014 suggests, causes people to smell and taste food more intensely when they are high. For example, tests conducted on mice showed that THC heightened the rodents’ sense of smell, increasing their hunger and giving them the munchies.”

Legalization — and the resulting tidal wave of munchies — could well be the catalyst to push junk food into a new Golden Age. Needless to say, such companies would be wise to capitalize on these high times. It’s something even the Girl Scouts have already recognized: One business savvy Scout in San Diego recently sold more than 300 boxes of cookies in only six hours thanks to a steady flow of hungry stoners exiting the dispensary she posted up outside of.

So when, then, will bigger brands like McDonald’s or Taco Bell take a more direct approach at marketing to stoners? In all likelihood, not until weed becomes federally legal — something that could feasibly happen any day now.

“As cannabis culture becomes further normalized and acceptable, it’s likely that more brands — particularly startup companies seeking to appeal to a younger audience — will specifically begin targeting those consumers who they believe identify with it,” explains Paul Armentano, deputy director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. “That said, as long as cannabis remains federally illegal and there exists polarization among some members of the public, particularly seniors, with regard to its acceptance, I would anticipate larger, more established companies to continue to take a more conservative approach and continue to shy away from any direct, or even indirect, affiliation with the plant or those who consume it.”

Not everyone’s waiting, though. Jack in the Box momentarily flirted with cannabis-influenced marketing in 2017 when it launched the $4.20 Merry Munchie Meal (half an order each of curly fries and onion rings; two tacos; five mini-churros; three crispy chicken strips; and a drink) in celebration of recreational weed becoming legal in California. Admittedly, this promotion was only available at three Long Beach locations, and only for a week. But the fact that a brand as big as Jack in the Box even tried marketing to stoners is a big deal.

In the end, though, weed is, for some, a controversial topic, and that’s something that brands will almost always shy away from until the last possible moment, so as not to lose any of those sweet, sweet potential customer dollars. Take, for instance, when Oreo displayed their solidarity with the LGBTQ community in 2012 by posting a photo of a rainbow-colored cookie on Facebook. It quickly devolved into a bitter flame war between those who supported and those who opposed gay marriage (23,000 comments in the first 24 hours!), with many threatening to unfollow the page and boycott the cookies altogethers. Most companies simply don’t want any part of that, which means that even as more states legalize weed, these big junk food brands likely won’t hop on the train until the dust settles.

That dust, however, may settle sooner than we think. In October 2018, a poll found that 62 percent of Americans want weed to be legalized — that’s (1) the majority and (2) double the number of people who favored legalization even as recently as 2000. Furthermore, once weed becomes federally legal, cannabis companies will finally be allowed to run commercials on national television, which would make it a hell of a lot easier for bigger brands to get the munchie message across.

But until then, when you want a restaurant to recognize that you’re a stoner and you’re hungry, damn it, you’ll have to stop by smaller businesses that have less to lose by admitting they’re in it for both kinds of green.