Willie Nelson recently sparked a cannabis controversy when he told a local San Antonio news station that he has stopped smoking marijuana for health reasons. “I don’t smoke anymore – take better care of myself,” Nelson said, leading to a slew of misleading headlines and subsequent disbelief from the cannabis community. 

In response to the revelation, some have called this the end of an era, others insist that hell has frozen over, asking, “How could Willie betray his roots in such a public way?”  Well, the answer seems to be quite simple: Willie hasn’t stopped consuming cannabis, he’s just stopped smoking it. 

As an 86-year-old man with emphysema, Willie is making the right choice for his well-being with his decision not to inhale smoke. Emphysema is an incurable lung illness caused by smoking, that can lead to significant breathing issues that require oxygen supplementation. The primary way to ease the symptoms of emphysema is to quit inhaling smoke. 

Elaine Schock, Willie Nelson’s spokesperson, confirmed to the Associated Press in an email that Willie continues consuming marijuana.  Willie’s son Luke Nelson also felt compelled to clear the cloud of confusion.  In a tweet he said, “It’s almost 2020, how people ingest cannabis has changed. Between vaping, edibles, gummies, drops, etc. I think it’s safe to say Willie will never stop enjoying Mary Jane!” 

The industry has come a long way since Willie became a cannabis icon in the 1970s. Old stoner stereotypes are falling by the wayside, rolling joints of Mexican brick weed is no longer the only way to consume, and new healthier products are emerging. Suffice to say, Willie has options. In fact, new methods of consuming cannabis have dominated the market in 2019. According to one analysis of the retail marijuana market performed by BDS Analytics, of the top ten cannabis products sold in 2019, eight of them were items that are not smoked. Willie’s own namesake cannabis brand, Willie’s Reserve, sells chocolate and fruit edibles and vaping products in addition to marijuana flower, meaning even with his new limitations Willie can get high on his own supply. 

The shift in cannabis technology can also be attributed to an ever-changing market demographic. Eaze’s State of Cannabis Report, released in January 2019, identified Baby Boomers and women as the fastest growing demographics of new cannabis consumers. Eaze noted that this shift in the market has led to a shift in cannabis being purchased and utilized as a wellness tool, not just a recreational substance. As this transition to a wellness tool continues, more products that help consumers easily dose specific cannabinoids will become a larger and larger share of the marijuana market. From tinctures, edibles that resemble pharmaceutical pills, patches, and suppositories, the industry is beginning to reflect the growing mentality of utilizing cannabis for wellness. As this trend continues, it is likely that smoking flower won’t be the primary method of consuming cannabis for many cannabis-users. 

The public outcry in response to Willie’s announcement has its own implications. As the population of cannabis consumers grows, so does their voice, and the overwhelming message is, “Supporting the cannabis industry is mandatory.” While Willie Nelson has been absolved by the industry in the wake of his clarification that he’s still a cannabis consumer and advocate, other public figures have raised controversies of their own. Joe Biden was recently raked over the coals for public comments that implied that cannabis may be a gateway drug, despite this claim being debunked time and again. After a week of criticism, Biden walked back those comments, however he still does not support federal cannabis legalization. Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg has also attempted to distance himself from an anti-cannabis image garnered over his time as mayor to boost his bid to become the Democratic presidential nominee. Times are changing, according to a new Pew Research Center survey, over two-thirds of Americans support cannabis legalization. Controversy surrounding cannabis is no longer deciding whether or not to support the industry, support is not optional to the ever growing, very vocal, population of cannabis consumers. 

Perhaps the most shocking part of Willie’s announcement to stop smoking cannabis, is the subsequent controversy that made clear the passion of the growing cannabis-user population. The controversy compelled many in the cannabis industry to speak up and educate the public different methods of consuming cannabis. As the cannabis industry continues to grow, the effort to continuously educate the public about new technology will become necessary. For now, we can all breathe a sigh of relief knowing that Willie Nelson’s roots as a cannabis icon are here to stay.