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A Digital Cannabis Regulatory Science Paradigm for Testing the Cognitive and Behavioral Impacts of Online Cannabis Retailer Practices

Funding Source

National Institute on Drug Abuse – Center for Technology and Behavioral Health Pilot Core

Project Period

February 2023 - February 2024

Principal Investigator

Jacob Borodovsky, PhD

Other Project Staff

Alan Budney, PhD (Co-I); Cara Struble, PhD (Co-I); Sarah Preum, PhD (Co-I); Sourish Bairaboina (Research Assistant); Neil Davidson (contractor): Digital infrastructure development

Project Summary

The legal cannabis industry has been described as “a natural laboratory for marketing strategy research” and continues to innovate its product line and marketing strategies to appeal to different consumers (e.g., high-risk concentrate products with large amounts of Δ9 tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), attractive packaging and flavors, unsupported medical claims, targeted profiling of vulnerable subgroups). Additionally, in the wake of COVID-19, the industry has shifted focus to online marketing and sales, which has become a sizeable and growing portion of the cannabis market. To design regulations that mitigate the public health impact of cannabis industry marketing practices, we need to understand how the growing multitude of cannabis product types, attributes, and presentation strategies affect consumer choices and beliefs.

Traditional data collection systems are inadequate for studying cannabis product diversity and marketing. For example, national federal surveys are slow to adapt and do not focus primarily on cannabis, and standard consumer choice studies often use survey-only designs that require participants to choose either product A or B. Thus, there is a need for data collection systems that enable rapid and ecologically valid investigations of the interplay between evolving cannabis industry marketing practices and cannabis consumer behaviors and beliefs.

The overarching goal of this project is to pilot-test a flexible, realistic cannabis retailer website and online shopping experience in three proof-of-concept studies aimed at isolating how cannabis product features and marketing impact consumers. The three studies will employ customized versions of the cannabis retailer platform to examine the impact of (1) popular “brand” names of products, (2) medically-oriented product descriptions, and (3) targeted warning labels. Our overarching hypothesis is that cannabis consumer choices and beliefs can be altered by the same marketing tactics previously employed by the alcohol, tobacco, and pharmaceutical industries. Results confirming this hypothesis will (1) help pave the way for new, public health-oriented cannabis product regulations and (2) help establish the feasibility and utility of a new digital Cannabis Regulatory Science paradigm.