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Mainstream Marijuana: How Consumer Goods Companies Will Capitalize on the Growing Acceptance of Cannabis

Highlights

We see a growing acceptance of legal cannabis over the next decade, with consumer product companies beginning to offer a range of products including recreational marijuana, health and beauty products, cannabis infused beverages, and treatments for insomnia and anxiety.

Successful cannabis offerings will need to have an acceptable taste, accurate dosage levels, a predictable time of onset, and sufficiently long shelf life. A product's image may also play a role in its acceptance, especially if it is used in social settings.

Most large companies are entering the market for cannabis products on a small scale through joint ventures that protect the balance sheet, but also allow for further investment as the market heats up.

In addition to risks arising from product taxation, regulatory changes, and potential health concerns, companies will have to worry about competition from illegal sources.

Over the next two years we don't expect cannabis, by itself, to drive rating activity at any large consumer product company. But we think that rating actions could materialize over the subsequent five years as issuers succeed (or fail) at capitalizing on cannabis opportunities, including by possibly increasing leverage significantly .

Jun. 19 2019 — The growing acceptance of cannabis for use in industrial, medical, and consumer goods has spurred some of the largest consumer product companies in the world to make billion dollar investments in this nascent business. S&P Global Ratings believes that these companies are only just beginning to jump into a market likely to expand greatly over the next decade as cannabis products increasingly go mainstream. The legalization of recreational marijuana gets the headlines. But consumer product companies are eyeing everything from THC-infused beer to dog treats laced with cannabis, even as they keep a close eye on regulatory developments and their balance sheets.

Investment in cannabis is coming as more and more U.S. states have chosen to legalize medical or recreational marijuana—as did all of Canada in October 2018. Indeed, asset prices for many small pure-play cannabis firms have skyrocketed over the last year as larger corporations established joint ventures or other types of partnerships with them. The makers of alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages, health and beauty care products, and cigarettes, are among companies considering selling cannabis products, either to capitalize on its use or as a defensive marketplace measure. And despite growing—but not yet total—legalization, these companies will still worry that consumers may ultimately opt to ignore mainstream sellers and buy illicit products.

While we see no significant rating actions directly related to cannabis at major consumer product companies over the next two years, we could subsequently see such actions depending on market dynamics, consumer preferences, legislative and regulatory action, and a company's appetite to incur additional debt. There will be winners with improved credit measures and market positions, and losers who have misread the changing environment, missed opportunities for growth, or encountered financial or regulatory difficulty. The evolving attitude toward cannabis around much of the world however, cannot be denied, and companies large and small are generally doing their best not to live in denial.

What Is Cannabis?

Cannabis is a family of plants which includes hemp and marijuana. Cannabis contains a variety of different compounds called cannabinoids, the most dominant of which are tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and CBD. THC induces psychoactive effects. It's the compound that gets users 'high'. CBD is not psychoactive, but its advocates believe it can help treat anxiety, chronic pain, sleep ailments, and mood disorders, among other ailments. Hemp, which is typically grown as a fiber, cannot contain more than 0.3% of THC—whereas marijuana typically has 15% to 40% THC.

Hemp is used primarily for industrial purposes including the production of paper, clothing, building materials, biofuel, food products, and oils, as well as a variety of other THC-free CBD products. The 2018 U.S. Farm Bill legalized hemp in the U.S.—although with significant restrictions. Marijuana is used mainly for recreational and medicinal purposes, and can be smoked, inhaled, or ingested. Less frequently, marijuana oil extract is injected with a needle.

Consumer goods that may see growth or disruption from cannabis include, but are not limited to over-the-counter healthcare, alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages, tobacco, packaged food, beauty, personal care, and pet care.

Growing Like Weeds

According to the market research outfit Euromonitor International, the global cannabis market totals around $150 billion today, over 90% of which is illicit. However, Euromonitor forecasts that the legal cannabis market may increase over the next seven years by a 45% compound annual growth rate, to about $166 billion by 2025, from $12 billion in 2018. We believe this outlook assumes legalization of new markets, most notably the U.S., whose current illicit market is estimated at close to $50 billion annually, or about a third of the total legal and illicit market globally. We believe that the rapid growth we project will hinge on further legalization among U.S. states, or at least a federal government which cedes oversight to the states. Broad decriminalization of cannabis, whereby people with small amounts of marijuana for personal use are given only a modest fine, can be the first step towards full legalization.

We believe that over the next decade most legal cannabis growth will occur in more socially liberal western economies: Canada, the U.S, Western Europe, and certain South American countries. Although the push for legalization so far is less pronounced in Western Europe and South America (where only Uruguay has legalized it), Canada legalized cannabis in certain forms in October 2018, and will also legalize edible cannabis.

The U.S. government still classifies cannabis as a schedule 1 drug (those with a high potential for abuse and the potential to create severe psychological and/or physical dependence), and full legalization on the national level appears unlikely in the near term. But the states have taken the lead in cannabis reform, reflecting voter sentiment as well as the hope that revenues from legalization will help support state budgets. For example, tax receipts have topped $250 million annually in Oregon, Colorado, and California—exceeding expectations in both Oregon and Colorado. And Washington State raked in $358 million in taxes for the state.

All but three U.S. states have okayed some form of medical cannabis use. Ten states and the District of Columbia have legalized it for recreational use. Fifteen states have decriminalized cannabis possession. And federal law now prohibits prosecution of people who comply with state medical cannabis laws. The positive economic impact of legal sales on government coffers may raise the prospects for federal legalization.

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