CHICAGO — When a friend of Alexandra Eidenberg asks her to watch her child for a minute and steps outside, Eidenberg knows what she's doing -- taking a hit of marijuana. She's fine with that, saying her friends remain very responsible parents. She considers cannabis generally safer than alcohol -- though she doesn't use the drug herself.
As a member of a Chicago-area coalition called Moms for Marijuana, Eidenberg, of Wilmette, and her friends lobbied for legalization of the drug to make it safer to use, to improve social justice and generate tax revenue. Once marijuana becomes legal under Illinois state law on Jan. 1, 2020, she wonders how people will use it in social settings.
"Are we going to go to barbecues in the backyard where people are smoking?" she asked. "Who's going to feel comfortable with it in front of their kids? We'll see people getting stoned and hanging out. I feel like we're going to start having new norms."
Faced with normalization of a product that's been federally prohibited for decades, people will have to work out how to handle legal marijuana among friends and family. Consuming pot in public will remain against the law, but consuming in private will be allowed if the property owner permits it and it's out of sight from the neighbors. So who will be smoking pot once it's legal, and when? The answer relates largely to demographics and circumstances.
A recent nationwide analysis of marijuana consumption found a wide variety of users. They range from "functional dependents" who smoke heavily every day, often alone, to weekend enthusiasts, to "opportunists" who use only when somebody else has it and don't bother to pay.
The frequency of use depends in part on why people use the drug, according to the analysis. Two-thirds of users want to relax, while many use it only to enhance social experiences likes parties or concerts, and some consider it part of their daily lifestyle.
The analysis, by New Frontier Data, a cannabis market research group, also found that while young men remain the heaviest users of pot, women, baby boomers and the elderly are the fastest-growing segment of users. Joints remain the most common form of consumption, but vaping and edibles are gaining quickly in popularity.
Nationwide, the industry accounted for an estimated $10 billion in sales last year, legal and illegal. That is expected to grow to $26 billion by 2025. Only about 20% of cannabis sold was bought at a store, with most of it coming from friends or dealers, but that balance is expected to shift as licensed commercial sales become legal in Illinois and Michigan, and possibly other states.
The analysis was based on a nationwide survey of self-identified legal and illegal cannabis users and data from $5 billion in legal medical and recreational sales since 2015 tabulated by MJ Freeway, which runs seed-to-sale cannabis tracking systems.
John Kagia, who led the research for New Frontier, noted that residents of Illinois and the Midwest in general use cannabis much less frequently than people out West. Use is expected to grow in Illinois when pot becomes legal, but Kagia predicts the state will start out consuming less per capita than Colorado, which legalized marijuana in 2014.
Illinois consumers right now also aren't as sophisticated as those in Colorado, who have had more than four years to try different products and ways of consuming them. As the legal market has matured there and in other states, frequent consumers have been buying less flower and more edibles and concentrates, whereas older occasional users tend to stick with joints and pipes.
One other trend to expect is that of infused beverages. Edibles are popular because many people don't like to smoke, but Kagia noted that the problem with edibles is that they take a long time to kick in, and by then a user may have taken too much and stays too high for too long.
So businesses are trying to put THC, the part of the pot plant that gets people high, and CBD, the non-psychoactive component credited for a variety of health effects, into beverages that will take effect in less than 10 minutes, similar to alcohol, so people can control their dosing more carefully.
That's especially important for the many people who use marijuana for health-related reasons -- to relieve pain, improve appetite, treat seizures or muscle tightness, elevate their mood, sleep better or reduce use of stronger prescription drugs.
One potentially troubling aspect in the analysis is that more than one-third of respondents reported using weed every day. Research has shown that heavy use can cause lung problems and cycles of nausea and vomiting and has been associated with higher rates of mental illness, including psychosis.
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Addiction is also a risk for some heavy users. The National Institute on Drug Abuse cites research estimating that 9 to 30% of users may develop some degree of marijuana use disorder. Advocates argue that legalizing it will generate more resources to educate the public about the dangers of overuse and to treat abuse.
Kagia predicted that as more young people use the drug in moderation and see the effects of marijuana compared with alcohol, they will prefer cannabis and drink less.
Use among women is growing quickly, as they value the convenience and discretion afforded by vaping and edibles at home or in public. At social get-togethers like book clubs, cannabis is already replacing wine-centered gatherings in some circles, Kagia said he's hearing.
Kagia predicted that Illinois -- one of the first states in the Midwest to offer recreational weed -- will attract more out-of-state visitors and develop a canna-tourism industry.
And the state also could lead the way in cannabis business mergers and influence since expected legalization has not occurred in states such as New York and New Jersey, Kagia said.
"Illinois has the opportunity as a first mover of a fairly large population, strategically located, with access to capital, that when we see a push to consolidation, we expect it to be a market mover," he said.
Because only the 17 existing medical marijuana growers will be allowed to serve the market initially, Kagia predicted that Illinois won't see the oversupply that has flooded the market in places like Oregon. But he expects consumers in Illinois will see higher prices.
In anticipation of such a monumental shift in social practices, Joline Rivera, founder of Kitchen Toke, an international cannabis cooking magazine based in Chicago, predicts that legalization will profoundly influence a central aspect of get-togethers everywhere: food. That's why she's held cannabis-infused dinners at New York fashion shows and is launching her own online store of CBD products this summer.
As a registered medical marijuana patient, Rivera uses cannabis in her own cooking every day, in her morning smoothie, a shot of hemp juice before a run, or with infused olive oil on her salad. She notes that bars in Chicago are already serving cannabis-infused cocktails.
She expects to see more people incorporating unique cannabis flavors into what they eat, and offering them at parties and potlucks. She's not getting stoned but maintains that CBD and other extracts help her focus and feel better.
"Everything we do socially operates around food," she said. "I think cannabis is going to be a huge part of that. Our stance is that it's not about getting high, it's about getting healthy."
Even people who've never worked in the industry before are hoping to capitalize on its social aspects. Kankakee resident Stephen Lockwood, who recently got a degree in horticulture and is a self-taught chef, hopes to start a business cooking for people with cannabis-infused dishes at weddings and other catered celebrations.
He says he can incorporate cannabis into a mean barbecue sauce, fettuccine Alfredo and from-scratch Boston creme doughnuts. He says he's seen a wide range of use and misuse of the drug, from moms and hardworking successful businesspeople who use it to unwind to young men on the "wrong path" who abuse it with other substances.
With a father who's a police officer, and having once considered the priesthood himself, Lockwood says he is conservative and anti-drug. But to him, this is different.
"It's like smoking a cigarette or drinking a beer, but it won't cause cancer or start a fight," he said. "I know it sounds nuts, but it's going to be legal now."