Legal marijuana sales in multiple states reached record highs in mid-2020 as coronavirus spread across the nation, according a new study. To date, sales in the four states examined in the analysis—Alaska, Colorado, Oregon and Washington—”have increased more during the COVID-19 pandemic than in the previous two years.”
The study, authored by a group of health researchers, gathered pre-tax cannabis sales data from state regulatory agencies and compared those numbers over time. It found that even amid stay-at-home orders that dealt hard hits to other economic sectors, cannabis sales picked up speed.
“Findings show a general increase in cannabis sales following stay-at-home orders issued in AK, CO, OR, and WA in late March 2020,” the report, published last week in the International Journal of Drug Policy, says. “In all four states, those increases were greater than the percent increases observed in the preceding two years.”
“To date, cannabis sales in Alaska, Colorado, Oregon, and Washington have increased more during the COVID-19 pandemic than in the previous two years.”
Authors include researchers at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the University of Washington’s Drug and Alcohol Institute and health and regulatory agencies in several states. While official data releases and news articles documented the spike in marijuana sales as it occurred, the new report calls itself “the first study in the academic literature to document changes in U.S. cannabis sales data during the COVID-19 pandemic.”
While the authors didn’t attempt to determine the causes behind the increased sales, they speculated the boost might be related to a number of different factors: increased cannabis use among individuals coping with stress, stay-at-home orders pushing consumers from the illicit market to licensed stores, possible price increases due to rising demand and/or purchasing of more expensive cannabis products, such as concentrates and oils.
Many states allowed cannabis retailers to remain open during the pandemic—with governors and regulators in several markets declaring marijuana businesses to be essential services—and some jurisdictions issued emergency rules allowing curbside pickup, delivery services or other more relaxed policies in order to facilitate social distancing.
Those measures could have allowed easier access for people with mobility issues or small children in their care, the authors noted. “State cannabis regulatory policy changes to promote social distancing during the pandemic may have increased the convenience or ease of purchasing cannabis for certain customers,” they said.
“Cannabis sales increased in all four states coinciding with state stay-at-home orders.”
Government-imposed social distancing measures may have also encouraged people to switch from the illegal market to the legal one, leading to a boost in reported sales at dispensaries.
“Stay-at-home orders may also have resulted in individuals who previously purchased cannabis on the illicit market moving to legal sources of cannabis,” the researchers said, “which would result in an increase in sales that may not correspond to changes in use but rather in the source of purchase.”
Another explanation could be a rise in medical or therapeutic use of cannabis. “Given scientific evidence supporting specific medicinal uses of cannabis and cannabinoids, it is also possible that increased consumption may be due to self-treatment of medical conditions, including due to potential pandemic-related barriers to usual sources of medical care,” the report says.
“Individuals may have initiated or increased cannabis use to cope with stressors brought on by the pandemic.”
Researchers chose Alaska, Colorado, Oregon and Washington because legal adult-use markets in those states have been operating the longest and are thought to be more likely to have plateaued. “Some increase in year-over-year sales is expected even in established state-based cannabis markets because the cannabis industry continues to market to broad audiences, to diversify product offerings, and increasingly, to capture some of the illicit market,” the study says. “However, sales are expected to be more stable in these four states than in states that legalized more recently and have less mature marketplaces.”
There is, of course, potential noise in the data, which the authors acknowledge. Price changes, the “increasingly fluid” distinction between medical and adult use systems, for example, might also have affected total sales. Moreover, data from the four states studied may not represent trends in other states. Causality also isn’t clear: “While results demonstrate the timing of sales increases coincided with the onset of stay-at-home orders following the COVID-19 pandemic and continued to increase thereafter,” the report says, “additional research is needed to determine whether a causal association between the pandemic and cannabis use and sales exists and whether specific populations contributed to increased use and sales.”
The short, five-page paper draws few conclusions from the data other than that purchasing and use patterns deserve further study. “In light of these increases, data monitoring is warranted to understand how patterns of use may be changing,” it says, “and, if so, whether they affect a range of public health outcomes including the incidence of cannabis and other substance use disorders.”
Elsewhere in the U.S., cannabis sales have similarly grown. In Illinois, for instance, saw $127.8 million in total sales last month, breaking its monthly sales record for the fourth time in the past five months.
Rising sales have also meant more revenue for state coffers. A report from advocates at Marijuana Policy Published in March estimated that all told, legal cannabis states had brought in $7.9 billion since nonmedical sales began. California made more than $1 billion in cannabis tax revenue in 2020 alone.
Leaders in other states have remarked on the millions in monthly revenue. Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers (D) said in April he’s getting “tired” of hearing about these sales figures, joking that Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker (D) always “thanks me for having Wisconsinites cross the border to buy marijuana.”
Illinois officials have emphasized that the tax dollars from all of these sales are being put to good use. For example, the state announced in January that it is distributing $31.5 million in grants funded by marijuana tax dollars to communities that have been disproportionately impacted by the war on drugs.
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