Cracking Down on the Cannabis Black Market to Save Legal Sales


Throughout the United States, the illegal cannabis market continues to thrive – even in states that have legalized recreational marijuana. While there are several reasons the black market is still doing so well, some cannabis companies are starting to fight back with more effective product positioning in Canadian markets, and U.S. brands should pay attention.

The lesson to learn is product positioning will become essential to succeeding in the U.S. cannabis market in the near future – just as it is in other industries.

How Canadian Cannabis Companies are Fighting the Black Market with Product Positioning

According to a study by Headset, the value-priced segment of the cannabis market in Canada (i.e., products with a retail price of $6 or less per brand) accounted for 40% of all dried flower sales in July 2020, which is up from 10% in September 2019. ‘

New lower-priced cannabis products in the “value” segment are targeted to people who currently buy on the black market in an effort to lure them to the legal adult-use market. Once customers transition to the legal recreational market, the goal is to upsell them to higher-priced products.

Aurora Cannabis Inc. and Canopy Growth Corp. both released value-priced products in Canada in recent months to capture some of the black market and help their revenues. In fact, Canopy Growth plans to be the value product market share leader in the recreational market, which CEO David Klein expects will grow to about 50% of the overall adult-use market.

What’s Happening in the U.S. Cannabis Black Market?

While the black market problem is prevalent across the U.S., in some states the problem is significantly bigger than others. California is a perfect example.

In its 2019 draft annual report, the Cannabis Advisory Committee warned California legislators and Governor Gavin Newsom that a combination of high taxes, onerous regulations, and local bans allow the cannabis black market to dominate “as much as 80% of the cannabis market in California.”

What does 80% of California’s cannabis market mean? Here is some data from the Cannabis Advisory Committee’s report to provide perspective:

  • Illegal sales are three times higher than legal sales: In 2019, legal cannabis sales in California were expected to reach $3.1 billion compared to $8.7 billion in illegal sales.
  • Tax revenue is about one-third of what the state expected: $1 billion in annual tax revenue from cannabis was projected with the passing of Proposition 64 that legalized adult-use cannabis, but the fiscal year ended June 2019 recorded just $288 million in taxes collected. The estimated tax collection for the coming fiscal year is just $359 million.

In other words, despite the fact that legal cannabis products should be safer and higher quality than illegal products, a large number of consumers in California and across the United States still choose to buy from the black market than through licensed businesses.

Factors Causing the Black Market to Continue Thriving in the U.S.

Many cannabis industry advocates cite taxes, local regulations, licensing delays (and caps), a lack of law enforcement, and strict state regulations as some of the primary reasons that illegal cannabis sales continue to thrive. Let’s take a closer look at each.

1. Taxes

When states and local municipalities add burdensome taxes to businesses across the supply chain and to consumers, the result is a trickle-down effect that ends with higher prices for consumers. For many consumers, particularly those who have prior experience buying cannabis from illegal sellers, the price difference is too big to ignore. Rather than paying excessively more to shop at legal dispensaries and retailers, consumers choose to buy from the black market.

2. Local Regulations

When local municipalities ban cannabis businesses, it’s more difficult for consumers to purchase cannabis products. As a result, it’s easier for consumers to buy from illegal sellers. Why travel to buy when a consumer can buy more conveniently and spend less money through the black market?

3. Licensing Delays and Caps

Many states’ cannabis laws limit the number of business licenses that can be issued. If there aren’t enough licenses to service customers conveniently, many will turn to the black market. In addition, many states haven’t issued licenses in a timely manner. Therefore, consumer demand isn’t met and illegal sales continue to thrive.

4. Lack of Law Enforcement

Many industry professionals argue that a lack of law enforcement is at least partially to blame for thriving illegal cannabis sales throughout the country that are happening in unlicensed storefronts as well as unlicensed grow operations.

Other types of illegal cannabis activities that need to be addressed fully are counterfeit products and advertising scams. For example, counterfeiters actively sell fake cannabis products at illegal shops and online, and black market sellers know how to get around advertising laws to show their ads across the web.

5. State Regulations

State regulations can make it extremely difficult for businesses to operate in the legal cannabis industry. From high application and licensing fees and exorbitant taxes to massive capital outlays and overly-burdensome compliance requirements (including testing, tracking, and more), being part of the legal cannabis industry can be excessively expensive and challenging. As a result, many people choose to continue operating in the black market.

Key Takeaways about the Cannabis Black Market Hurting Legal Sales

Product positioning by price is already showing some success in the Canadian cannabis market in terms of luring sales from the black market, but it will take some time for consumers to transition in larger numbers.

However, until taxes (and prices) are lowered, regulations are eased, and accessibility improves for consumers, the black market for cannabis in the United States will continue to thrive.

Originally published 1/21/20. Updated 8/21/20.

Susan Gunelius

Susan Gunelius, Lead Analyst for Cannabiz Media and author of Marijuana Licensing Reference Guide: 2017 Edition, is also President & CEO of KeySplash Creative, Inc., a marketing communications company offering, copywriting, content marketing, email marketing, social media marketing, and strategic branding services. She spent the first half of her 25-year career directing marketing programs for AT&T and HSBC. Today, her clients include household brands like Citigroup, Cox Communications, Intuit, and more as well as small businesses around the world. She has been working with clients in the cannabis industry since 2015. Susan has written 11 marketing-related books, including the highly popular Content Marketing for Dummies, 30-Minute Social Media Marketing, Kick-ass Copywriting in 10 Easy Steps, The Ultimate Guide to Email Marketing, and she is a popular marketing and branding keynote speaker. She is also a Certified Career Coach and Founder and Editor in Chief of Women on Business, an award-winning blog for business women. Susan holds a B.S. in marketing and an M.B.A in management and strategy.

Latest posts