This article is part of a series of historical perspectives about the legal cannabis industry.
As I reflect on the past ten years in legal cannabis, it’s truly remarkable to witness the sector’s transformation from a grassroots, advocate-driven cottage industry into a sophisticated market that now boasts a retail value of more than $30 billion. A decade ago, the legal cannabis market primarily was driven by passionate advocates and enthusiasts who believed in the plant’s potential benefits. Entrepreneurs faced significant legal and regulatory obstacles, but they persevered despite the challenges, determined to bring about change and establish a legitimate market. Their early efforts propelled the industry to what it is today, with 73 percent of Americans having access to legal cannabis—a number that could reach 96 percent in the next decade.
One of the most significant shifts over the past decade was the influx of massive investor interest. As the industry gained credibility and momentum, investors flocked to get a piece of the action. The prospect of high returns and a growing consumer base was too enticing to ignore. The period witnessed explosive growth, with companies going public and attracting substantial capital. In 2021, for example, following reports of record sales in legal markets during the pandemic, companies raced to enter new markets, expand operations, and acquire intellectual property, leading to more than $17 billion in mergers-and-acquisitions (M&A) activity.
The meteoric rise was followed by a sobering reality check. Regulatory hurdles, slow market expansion, and the absence of federal legalization in the United States led to a downturn in investor interest, and M&A deals in North America shrank to just $4 billion in 2022. Many companies that once seemed invincible faced financial challenges, and stock prices plummeted. The volatility was a reminder legal cannabis was far from immune to the risks all other emerging industries face. In its early days, the industry struggled with an undersupplied and costly foundation. Limited cultivation facilities, strict regulations, and high overhead costs initially made cannabis products expensive for consumers, but the situation changed dramatically over time.
As more states legalized, the industry experienced a surplus of supply. The market transitioned from scarcity to abundance, leading to commoditization of certain products, particularly flower. Prices dropped, making cannabis more accessible for consumers. The average price per ounce of flower in the U.S. has declined 10 percent across all states since 2010, with older legal markets like Colorado seeing 30-percent price drops. This shift in supply-chain dynamics showcased the market’s adaptability.
One persistent challenge for the legal market is a patchwork of state regulations. Each state has its own set of rules, creating inefficiencies and logistical hurdles. The illicit market, too, has been a persistent adversary, refusing to fade away without a fight. The illicit market’s resilience can be attributed, partly, to the differing regulations and taxation levels in neighboring states, but as the legal market continues to grow and mature, it undoubtedly will become more challenging for the illicit market to thrive.
In 2022, an estimated 28 percent of U.S. sales occurred in legal channels. By 2030, 48 percent of total annual U.S. demand will be met by legal purveyors. Despite the challenges, the legal market has been a hotbed of innovation and entrepreneurship. Tenacious entrepreneurs have driven the industry forward with creativity and determination, producing a wide array of products including edibles, extracts, topicals, and beverages. Simultaneously, we’ve witnessed significant consolidation in almost every vertical within the market. Large corporations and established players have acquired smaller businesses to create more robust and vertically integrated companies, leading to increased efficiency and competitiveness.
As we enter the next decade, the legal U.S. market is poised for continued growth. If the pace of state-level legalization continues in the absence of federal policy reform, New Frontier Data projects the market will grow to an estimated $71 billion by 2030. Legal cannabis’s evolution over the past ten years has been remarkable. From humble beginnings to a multibillion-dollar industry, it has weathered numerous challenges and setbacks. The lessons learned, innovations developed, and resilient spirit of its participants have paved the way for a stronger and more promising future.
As legal cannabis continues to mature, the massive amount of data and capabilities developed within the industry will be invaluable in shaping its future. Data-driven insights, research, and market analysis will guide decision-makers in optimizing their strategies and operations. Cannabis will emerge as one of the largest U.S. consumer markets, driven by the visionaries who brought it this far.
Marketing technology expert Gary Allen serves as chief executive officer at New Frontier Data. Over the course of his career, he has led the development of technologies that later were acquired by Google, DoubleClick, Kantar Media, and other market leaders. Prior to joining New Frontier, Allen founded ModernMinds, a strategy consulting firm focused on startups in the technology space.