Changes in public depictions of the plant and those who enjoy it are playing a pivotal role in shaping consumers’ outlook and behavior. From increased representation in popular culture to a rise in education, mass media is changing the landscape across generations. For example, whereas television previously used consumption to depict a show’s “bad kid,” these days networks and movies are presenting consumption in an increasingly positive light.

As prohibition and stigma decline, the number of people who are dipping their toes into cannabis, sometimes called the cannacurious, is growing. In fact, a recent Gallup report revealed that in 2015, approximately 38 percent of Americans had tried flower or infused products. In 2023, that percentage increased to 50 percent.

Seeing cannabis in entertainment media isn’t new. Cheech and Chong became counterculture icons in the mid- to late-1960s thanks to their stoner schtick. The number of  TV shows and movies that depict cannabis or cannabis culture has increased since then. From the Harold & Kumar stoner buddy comedies to Pineapple Express, Ted, and We’re the Millers, weed was integral to more than a few of the twentieth century’s favorite movies. Increased positive representation in popular culture gave consumers permission to satisfy their curiosity; consequently, the plant and its products largely normalized, becoming an everyday part of contemporary life.

Social media plays a significant role in normalization. According to Datareportal, 62.3 percent of the world’s population uses social media. Although the most popular platforms place strict restrictions on advertising and marketing by companies in our industry, influencers are able to and do promote products and use cases. 

According to a 2023 study conducted by Jessica Fitts Willoughby and her colleagues at the Edward R. Murrow College of Communication at Washington State University and published in the scholarly journal Health Communication, “Exposure to pro-cannabis messages on social media was associated with an increased intention to use cannabis. Among college students specifically, exposure to pro-cannabis messages on social media was also associated with more frequent cannabis use.”

Some of the most compelling content on social media comprises personal testimonies about life-changing experiences with medical products, both infused and flower. At long last, reliable scientific data is emerging to support these inspiring personal stories. For example, the National Institutes of Health recently reported cannabis significantly reduces anxiety and symptoms of depression in people living with post-traumatic stress disorder. Additionally, the American Cancer Society confirmed cannabis can mitigate nausea in chemotherapy patients. By disseminating this information, the media is educating the masses and helping to change the narrative of prohibition. Consequently, today 72 percent of Americans believe consuming cannabis is healthier than drinking alcohol.

Colleges and universities are among the most active research venues, thanks to the Medical Marijuana and Cannabidiol Research Expansion Act, which President Joe Biden signed into law in December 2022. Several institutions of higher learning have established science-based degree programs for cultivators and traditional business tracks with a dispensary focus. As these universities and others just ramping up similar offerings market their degree programs and research findings via mainstream media and the internet, we can expect cannabis to become even more of a household topic, especially for younger generations.

As a matter of fact, as legalization spreads and as the plant grows more popular in mainstream media, we’re seeing an uptick in usage and new consumption preferences in younger generations. The fastest-growing group of cannabis consumers is Gen Z, those born between 1997 and 2012. Headset found Gen Z’s “percentage share of total sales has grown by 11.3 percent year over year, from 15.1 percent to 16.8 percent of sales.” And let’s just say the younger generations are not interested in your father’s or grandfather’s weed.

Headset further explained millennials (1981–1996) and Gen Z consumers prefer inhalable products, including concentrates, vapor pens, and pre-rolls, along with beverages. Why? These formats are convenient, easy to use, and enjoyable. In fact, 33.6 percent of Gen Z consumers prefer vapes and, as a result, this generation is the first demographic to “dethrone flower as their top product category.”

Meanwhile, baby boomers (1946–1964) and Gen X (1965–1980) consumers are more focused on wellness and typically choose topicals and tinctures. But back in the day, these generations were all about consuming flower and edibles.

So, what does all the above suggest?

The role entertainment and mass media play in public perception is critical to growing the industry at large. Social platforms, news outlets, research journals, movies, and television shows steadily are establishing a new foundation for the industry. As more brands promote their products, research, and insights, the plant becomes increasingly normalized across all forms of media and entertainment. Normalization is one important key to federal legalization.

Michael Mejer is the founder of Green Lane Communication. With a background spanning more than a decade in publicity, marketing, and sales, he is adept at forging connections between trailblazers and the media. His strategic approach empowers business leaders not only to enhance brand recognition but also to foster trust and establish credibility.