This bud’s for you

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Not to harsh your mellow, but beer is suddenly getting some serious competition from cannabis.

Seven states and Washington, D.C., have legalized recreational weed, and 20 others allow its so-called medical use. An estimated 40 million Americans now enjoy marijuana on a regular basis.

And I do mean “enjoy,” in the same way that people enjoy a good brew. Which means that responsible adults are increasingly torching, vaping, dabbing and munching marijuana instead of cracking open a cold one.

That’s right: This bud’s for you.

In a sobering presentation at last week’s Brewbound craft beer industry gathering in San Diego, beverage, tobacco and cannabis analyst Vivien Azer warned attendees that their customers are already toking up.

Her blunt assessment: “I think it will negatively impact alcohol consumption.”

Sales of cannabis in legal states have topped $6 billion a year. This pales in comparison to beer, which is worth $100 billion in annual sales.

First, marijuana consumption is no longer simply a matter of rolling a joint with ordinary skunk weed. Just as craft beer brewers have attracted new enthusiasts by diversifying a stale, old commodity with appealing new flavors and styles, cannabis growers are broadening their market with new strains that induce a range of buzzes.

But weed is just getting started, with flavors like kush being the new IPA.

Compared to alcohol abuse, the long-term health impacts of marijuana are inconsequential and cannabis is increasingly viewed as being safer than beer. There are no hangovers. Thanks to new smokeless delivery devices that include vape pens, edibles, ointments and even transdermal patches—cannabis can’t even be called harsh.

And with legalization, marijuana smoke is publicly seeping into quarters that were once the domain of suds. For example, check out the tailgate scene outside the appropriately named Mile High Stadium before a Denver Broncos game and you’re apt to see fans toking up, thanks to a half-dozen dispensaries within walking distance of the parking lot.

In short: marijuana has lost its deviant stigma. It is on the verge of becoming a mainstream consumer product that can compete on a level playing field with alcohol.

This comes as booze consumption among millennials is on the decline. A study commissioned last winter by Heineken showed that three-quarters of people between the ages of 21 and 35 (prime drinking years) now limit their consumption on most occasions in which they drink.

That’s mostly because, according to the study, they don’t want to lose control in a social setting—a finding that suggests young people aren’t necessarily switching from beer to pot.

Nonetheless, the threat is real.

“I wouldn’t say it’s time to panic, because the anemic volume trends have been in place for a long time,” Azer said, as beer has long faced even bigger competition from spirits and wine.

The beer industry seems uncertain what to do about it, responding with a mixed message at best. For years, big beer fought cannabis with political contributions to conservative lawmakers and heavy-duty lobbying against legalization. More recently, craft beer has welcomed it with gimmicks, including playfully subversive brand names (Magic Hat hI.P.A., Sweetwater 420), a hop-forward ale with distinctively dank aroma.

Azer suggests beer makers can fight back by focusing on underserved markets, especially Hispanics and women.

My suggestion, brew masters?

Focus on what cannabis can’t offer, that classic but distinctive beer flavor that will always pair well with good food.

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