Marijuana sales reach record highs in 2020 — how the pandemic drove Americans to get stoned

Cannabis sales increased 67 percent in 2020. Here's how the pandemic created a marijuana boom. (Getty Images)
Cannabis sales increased 67 percent in 2020. Here's how the pandemic created a marijuana boom. (Getty Images)

It’s hard — if not impossible — to find ways that the COVID-19 pandemic has changed America for the better. The virus has led to over 24 million infections and more than 400,000 deaths. It has resulted in 10 million fewer jobs and 26 million Americans struggling to afford food. But amid all the suffering and doom, there is at least one industry that’s thriving — and promising to help those who are not: cannabis.

According to early data from Leafly, the world’s biggest cannabis website, marijuana sales in the U.S. increased at least 67 percent this past year, jumping from $10.7 billion in 2019 to $17.9 billion in 2020. This came as four states — Arizona, Montana, New Jersey and South Dakota — voted to legalize weed for adult use, joining the 15 others where it’s legal recreationally and the 33 that have legalized it for medical use.

Bruce Barcott, a senior editor at Leafly and author of Weed the People, believes the pandemic was instrumental in the rise. “The pandemic led people to buy more legal cannabis, period,” Barcott tells Yahoo Life. “I think people turned to cannabis to help relieve stress, to get some relaxation ... a lot of people were sheltering in place and staying inside and they were looking for a little bit of elevation, and cannabis was there.”

That was certainly true for New York-based model and audio post-producer George Dellinger, who tells Yahoo Life: “My business had a real slowdown during the summer, so I had an unusual amount of time to garden, up to six hours a day. Nothing like gardening while a little stoned.”

Leafly, which publishes an annual report on cannabis sales using state data, will release the final 2020 numbers next week. Barcott says the results are startling. “We knew from anecdotal reports in our own internal data that people were purchasing more cannabis during the pandemic,” he says. “But when we started tallying up the year-end numbers, it came as a bit of a shock.”

Harvest Health and Recreation, an Arizona-based marijuana company with retail locations in 18 states, is one of the companies that experienced major growth. “We reported significant sales increases in 2020 with sales from the same existing locations increasing 49 percent compared with the prior year in both the second and third quarters,” Harvest’s chief operating officer, Steve White, tells Yahoo Life. “Part of the growth can be explained by market growth, and part was attributable to increased purchases and consumption.”

Curaleaf, a Massachusetts-based company with dispensaries in 24 states, reported a 195 percent increase in sales by the third quarter of 2020, going from $61 million in 2019 to $182 million in 2020. “Since the start of the pandemic, we have seen an increase in new consumers at our dispensaries with more people exploring cannabis,” Patrik Jonsson, Curaleaf’s regional president, tells Yahoo Life.

Jonsson points to a Harris poll, conducted in partnership with Curaleaf, that found 42 percent of adults 21 and older who consume cannabis either “started or increased their consumption since the beginning of the pandemic.” Over 50 percent said they’d chosen to get stoned in order “to reduce stress and anxiety” or “to relax,” while others used it to combat insomnia.

If ever there was an increased need for a stress reducer, 2020 was it. Multiple experts have revealed that the U.S. experienced anxiety, posttraumatic stress disorder and insomnia last year at rates not seen before. Marijuana has proved effective, anecdotally, at quieting all three. For some, it’s an even better stress reliever than alcohol.

To be sure, marijuana is not for everyone, and not entirely risk-free. Short-term use of the drug, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, can cause adverse effects such as memory loss, altered judgment and (in the event of an overdose) psychosis. Long-term use can lead to addiction, cognitive impairment and an increased risk of certain mental illnesses. A recent report in the journal JAMA Network Open found that smoking cannabis can negatively impact lung health not just in long-term users but also in teens and young adults. Perhaps most troublingly, scientists have found that marijuana use may lead to altered brain development in adolescents, a group they’ve described as “uniquely susceptible to lasting damage from marijuana use.”

Plenty are opting for it anyway. Dellinger, who was never a “big drinker,” says at one point during the pandemic he began consuming alcohol more heavily, “like most of the rest of the world” (one study found adults are drinking 14 percent more during the pandemic). But after realizing that it made him feel worse in the morning, he quit cold turkey and switched to cannabis entirely, vaping or popping a THC gummy when his husband has a cocktail, or they end up “at a socially distanced affair,” he says. “I’m two months alcohol-free and it feels great.”

He’s not alone in making the switch. In the Harris poll, 57 percent of those with kids under the age of 18 said they had “reduced or replaced their alcohol consumption with cannabis” during the pandemic, and 33 percent of those who reported using it overall said they prefer it to alcohol. The statistics are consistent with reports of alcohol sales in 2020, which, although slightly increased, came nowhere near the rise in cannabis use.

And it’s not only major cannabis companies that benefitted from this pot frenzy but individual dispensaries in cities nationwide. Local news stories highlighted long lines of customers throughout the pandemic in cities like San Francisco, Denver, Philadelphia and St. Louis.

What was behind the surge in sales?

It’s tough for Barcott, or anyone really, to pick just one aspect of the pandemic that allowed weed sales to soar. On top of the increased need for stress relief, he says the decision by governors in states like California and Massachusetts to declare pot shops essential was key. It’s a move that allowed them to operate while the majority of other establishments, including bars, closed. Both of those states saw a major spike in pot sales, with Massachusetts going from $400 million in sales in 2019 to $700 million in 2020, according to Leafly.

Jonsson says those distinctions inarguably played a role in Curaleaf’s growth. “We were deemed an essential service in almost every state in which we operate, which was a significant milestone that legitimized the role cannabis plays in the health and wellness needs for our patients and consumers during this difficult, stressful time,” he tells Yahoo Life.

Massachusetts and California weren’t the only states to see a spike. Barcott says that a total of nine states doubled their marijuana sales in 2020, including Arkansas, Connecticut, Florida, Illinois, Maine, New Jersey, North Dakota, Ohio and Pennsylvania. He suggests that another driver may have been reports in late 2019 of a vaping illness known as EVALI (e-cigarette or vaping product use-associated lung injury), which underscored the dangers of the black market.

The illness, which was first identified in eight Wisconsin teenagers, caused at least one teen to get a double lung transplant, thousands more to be hospitalized and 68 to die. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention believes the life-threatening illness is caused by vitamin E acetate, a toxin used as an additive in vaping products from unlicensed sellers.

“By the end of 2019 people in the cannabis world kind of came to realize, look, this problem is all about illicit vape cartridges,” says Barcott. “So the stuff that is tested now is tested specifically for agents like this that are hurting people's lungs and killing them. So the knowledge is starting to seep out there that buying in a licensed store is actually protecting your health.”

Barcott also points out that the spike is likely to motivate more states to expedite legalization. “This will help the legalization efforts in states that are not yet legal,” says Barcott. “We’re seeing it already in the increased pressure on the New York state legislature to legalize for adult use this year because with New Jersey going legal, there are going to be millions and millions and millions of tax dollars going from New York to New Jersey to purchase cannabis.”

More legalization not only leads to the availability of cannabis for those with conditions that it’s been shown to treat — such as chronic pain — but also opens up the possibility of new jobs in a nation desperate for work. “Last year we counted almost 250,000 legal cannabis jobs across the United States,” says Barcott. “I think this year’s figure is going to be surprisingly higher than that.”

Jonsson agrees. “By providing essential services to consumers during this difficult period, cannabis has shown it is a valuable industry in terms of health and wellness, innovation, tax revenues and job creation, “ he says. “Tax revenues generated by the sale of medical and adult-use cannabis have increased dramatically this year, helping states recover from the COVID-19 pandemic and secure budgetary funds.”

He and others hope that 2021 will bring even more acceptance of a drug that has long been vilified by the U.S. government. “The liberalization of the plant — and the increasing diversity among consumers who enjoy it — will continue as the general public become more interested in incorporating cannabis into their health and wellness routines,” says Jonsson. “With the 2020 election, the voters have spoken, and we are witnessing the mainstream and bipartisan acceptance of cannabis use nationwide.”

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