“I’ve smoked a truly ungodly amount of weed since I’ve been in quarantine. Thank god it’s been declared an essential service because for me it is essential,” longtime open cannabis user Seth Rogen said last week on Jimmy Kimmel Live From His House. But superstar Rogen isn’t the only one who feels this way. People all over the United States are turning to cannabis to alleviate anxieties caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, proving now more than ever that the American people need their weed.
Illegal and legal sellers have reported significant increases in sales since nationwide shelter-in-place orders went into effect in March. Additionally, in every state where recreational cannabis is legal, except Massachusetts, state governments have declared recreational and medical use cannabis businesses as “essential” businesses to remain open during the Covid-19 pandemic. As one of the only industries remaining open, cannabis businesses have quickly adapted to social distancing practices. A bizarre dichotomy now exists in the United States regarding cannabis: cannabis is at the same time defined as essential and federally illegal.
“I am an essential worker,” said Jack, a local Manhattan dealer who requested that only his first name be used. When quarantine first started, Jack decided to shut down all business indefinitely for his own safety. In the following days, a majority of Jack’s 156 customers contacted him through Snapchat asking to come to his Lower Manhattan home and pick up their choice of flower strains and edibles as they normally would. Out of fear of getting sick, Jack turned them away. “I quickly realized how much my customers depended on me,” Jack said. “I was definitely scared, but I felt by not selling I was taking relief away from people when they needed it most.” Now that Jack has resumed business, he’s been busier than ever before.
Jack’s monthly sales have jumped roughly 300 percent in March and April. His average sale per customer has increased from an eighth of an ounce to about a half-ounce. On top of that, customers are buying more edibles. Jack thinks this is because edibles are more discrete to use for those quarantining with family and because of the risks associated with smoking and Covid-19. Through word of mouth, Jack has also taken on 50 new customers and counting. This extreme increase in demand has allowed Jack to expand his territory to encompass all of New York City and some suburban neighborhoods in Connecticut, where he goes weekly to New Britain to get his supply.
The boom in business has forced him to rethink how he does his job. “There’s no roadmap for someone like me to do social distancing. I’ve had to come up with it all and hold myself responsible for keeping me and my customers safe.” During the crisis, Jack has implemented strict rules. He only accepts payment through Venmo and does no face-to-face interactions. For suburban customers, once Jack has received payment, he drives to their home and leaves their order in the mailbox. For NYC customers, he will leave their order with a doorman, in the mailroom or at their doorstep. After dropping off a disguised order, Jack will send a ‘Snap’ of successful delivery. “I don’t see much difference between me and an Amazon Prime Whole Foods delivery guy, except what I do is illegal for some reason.”
For states where recreational cannabis is legal, the unofficial biggest stoner holiday of the year, 4/20, was superseded by the day states announced a shelter in place order. Cannabis businesses were closed for less than a day before they were deemed essential due to the enormous crowds they drew when people believed they wouldn’t have continuous access to their cannabis. In Colorado, it took only three hours.
On March 15, Colorado’s Mayor Hancock announced that a shelter in place order would start the next day and dispensaries would close until further notice. “There were lines of hundreds of people in front of every dispensary in the Denver Metro Area. It was absolutely crazy,” Tim Cullen, founder and CEO of the Colorado Harvest Company, said. Cullen’s shops reported seeing the same sales that Monday afternoon as they would on a very busy 4/20. “Once people heard about the shelter in place, they were stocking up on everything, and that definitely includes marijuana,” Cullen said. Ordering a shutdown of dispensaries with little notice caused exactly what Mayor Hancock was trying to avoid: huge crowds which could easily spread Covid-19.
Similarly in California, March had the biggest sales ever for dispensaries with a 159 percent increase in sales from March 2019. All five of the SPARC dispensaries across CA saw greater sales on March 16 than they did on any previous 4/20, which is typically their biggest day of the year.
“Unfortunately, now we’re just glorified cashiers,” SPARC’s senior dispensary manager Scott Reiman said. Like Jack, both SPARC and the Colorado Harvest Company have completely changed the way they do business in a number of ways, including switching to online orders and pick up only, and a one-customer at-a-time policy in order to implement social distancing.
“Buying marijuana is a tactile, intimate experience. People like to look at it, smell it, talk about it and see what’s new before they buy,” Cullen said. “Covid-19 has meant that customers aren’t able to have that interactive experience anymore.” Workers in the industry, including Cullen and Reiman, are sad to see this aspect of the business has become a casualty of the pandemic. But, customers have not been deterred.
Both dispensaries have seen steady sales since the national lockdown has started and an increase in the quantities customers are purchasing. Rieman even has customers who come in every day for a joint. “For some, it’s necessary to have that daily ritual right now,” he said. “People need something to stay constant in their lives, something they’re familiar with, to keep their mind off of what’s really going on.”
Cannabis business owners are grateful that their sales have not plummeted like many other businesses, especially since dispensaries are excluded from the payroll protection program and receive none of the stimulus packages given to Americans from the $350 trillion funding bill passed by President Trump. “Businesses like mine collect more tax revenue than any other business in Colorado,” Cullen said. His stores’ tax revenue helps pay for that stimulus money, but, he adds: “none of that matters since we are federally illegal.”
The Marijuana Policy Project, the nation’s leading organization focused solely on cannabis policy reform, is currently lobbying Congress to allow cannabis businesses to be included in the next round of stimulus packages, but the outcome of their efforts remains uncertain. “Covid-19 is highlighting and exacerbating the unfairness that the cannabis industry is constantly treated with,” Violet Cavendish, communications manager at the MPP, said. “Despite this, it’s thriving.”
The cannabis industry is playing a key role in how citizens are coping with Covid-19, even while being federally illegal. Additionally, cannabis is increasingly being recommended by doctors for its multitude of medical applications and comparatively minimal side effects. Some doctors see marijuana as medicine, one that can keep citizens stable during stress-inducing situations like the pandemic. “There’s no question in my mind people are smoking non-medical marijuana to keep calm and curve anxiety due to the stress of the situation, and [are] behaving themselves because of it,” said Dr. Howard Shapiro, one of the first state-approved certifying physicians for the New York Medical Marijuana Program, who believes cannabis should be legal everywhere. “Marijuana is the medication of the future,” Dr. Shapiro said. “And the future is now.”
Despite research that supports the use of certain cannabinoids for conditions like anxiety, pain and seizures, it is still classified federally as a Schedule I drug, on the same level as heroin and LSD. Regardless, most Americans agree with Dr. Shapiro. According to a Pew Poll conducted in 2019, 59 percent of Americans believe recreational cannabis should be legal and only 8 percent prefer to keep cannabis completely illegal. As a result of cannabis’s role during Covid-19, the necessity for this country to redefine its relationship with weed is accelerating. For those who believe in the positive effects of cannabis, long waited-for legalization could be the light at the end of the tunnel of this pandemic. “The American people have been ready for legalization for a long time,” Cullen said. “I just wish there was someone in office who sees the world the same way the people of this country do.”
Cannabis’s current contradictory status of essential and illegal may not persist, given the economic toll wrought by the pandemic. According to The U.S. Cannabis Report of 2019, the legal cannabis industry will grow by $30 billion by 2025, and this figure only accounts for states which have already legalized. “The U.S. economy is going to need some restrengthening after this is all said and done,” Cavendish said. “One roundabout way of doing that is through federal legalization of marijuana.” As the fastest-growing job market in the country, the cannabis industry could create millions of jobs, which could save some of the millions of Americans who have been laid off because of Covid-19. The tax revenue generated from legal cannabis sales could directly bail out states and the federal government which are currently at an economic standstill.
“Legalization could create a new industry for Americans to be a part of,” Cavendish said. “One that every American, not just users, would reap the benefits from.”