Big Data on a Big New Market

Insights from Washington State's Legal Cannabis Market

Published in: International Journal of Drug Policy, Volume 57, pages 86-94 (July 2018). doi: 10.1016/j.drugpo.2018.03.031

Posted on on September 20, 2019

by Jonathan P. Caulkins, Yilun Bao, Steven Davenport, Imane Fahli, Yutian Guo, Krista Kinnard, Mary Najewicz, Lauren Renaud, Beau Kilmer

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Voters in eight U.S. states have passed initiatives to legalize large-scale commercial production of cannabis for non-medical use. All plan or require some form of "seed-to-sale" tracking systems, which provide a view of cannabis market activity at a heretofore unimagined level of detail. Legal markets also create a range of new matters for policy makers to address.


Publicly available data were obtained on approximately 45 million individually priced items purchased in the 35 million retail transactions that took place during the first two and a half years of Washington State's legal cannabis market. Records include product type (flower, extract, lotion, liquid edible, etc.), product name, price, and potency with respect to multiple cannabinoids, notably THC and CBD. Items sold can be traced back up the supply chain through the store to the processor and producer, to the level of identifying the specific production batch and mother plant, the firm that tested the product, and test results.


Data visualization methods are employed to describe spatial-temporal patterns of multiple correlated attributes (e.g., price and potency) broken down by product. Text-analytic methods are used to subdivide the broad category of "extracts for inhalation" into more homogeneous sub-categories. To understand the competitiveness of the legal cannabis market in Washington we calculate the Herfindahl-Hirschman index (HHI) for processors and retailers.


Cannabis prices fell steadily and proportionally at the processor and retailer levels. Retail and wholesale price maintained a roughly 3:1 ratio for multiple product types after some initial fluctuations. Although a wide range of edibles are sold, they account for a modest share of consumer spending; extracts for inhalation are a larger and heterogeneous market segment. The HHI indicates the cannabis market is highly competitive at the processor level, but less so for retail markets at the county level.


Washington's state-legal cannabis market is diverse and rapidly evolving in terms of pricing, products, and organization. Post-legalization, researchers and policy makers may need to think in terms of a family of cannabis products, akin to how we think of new psychoactive substances and amphetamine-type stimulants, not a single drug "cannabis."

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