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HIGH SEASON: While other industries take a hit, cannabis thrives under COVID-19

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With stay-at-home orders in place around the country, cannabis is part of a larger conversation about which products should be considered ‘essential.’ Photo via Unsplash


Before the COVID-19 outbreak, Wilmington graduate student Caroline says she would smoke a little cannabis before bed most nights to help her sleep. Now, she starts smoking as early as 9 in the morning.

“I have the rolling down to a science so that my joint is ready at the same time as my coffee,” she says. “I usually light up again during the 3 or 4 p.m. slump, then finish that joint before bed. Sometimes I have my morning bud on Zoom or FaceTime with other friends who smoke. We pretend to pass our joints. We miss each other.”

Caroline is one of a large group of cannabis users who have seen their usage increase during quarantine. Just as alcohol sales have swelled as people are forced to stay at home to stop the spread of COVID-19, cannabis sales have flourished, too. According to Fortune magazine, cannabis dispensaries across the United States saw sales soar by double digits in March. In some places, people waited for hours in line to get their fix. After the stay-at-home order was issued in San Francisco, marijuana sales increased more than 150% over the same period a year ago. And in the midst of a historic stock-market meltdown, stock prices for cannabis companies have surged, in some cases doubling since the crisis began.

“It’s pretty much ‘pick your poison,’” says local edibles dealer Erica, referring to the uptick in sales of so-called vice products. Like many dealers, Erica has seen her sales go up since Governor Roy Cooper announced North Carolina’s stay-at-home order on March 27.

“It’s not that people are necessarily dropping by more often, but there are new people buying from me, and they’re buying in greater quantities,” she says. “I think people know at this point they’re in it for a haul.”

Erica offers a contactless exchange of her brownies, which come in flavors ranging from mint to peanut butter and pretzel. Her prices are set to be affordable for the graduate students and young professionals that make up the bulk of her friend group: $10 for a single treat, or $140 for a batch of 15, with a sliding scale for people from marginalized communities who may be having a hard time.

Selling edibles is Erica’s side hustle; she considers herself lucky to have a day job that wasn’t diminished by social distancing. Still, she says, the 40% uptick in business has helped her put a little extra in her savings. “It’s a nice income boost during this time.”

Those in the cannabis accessories sphere have seen their incomes positively affected by the pandemic as well. Sean is co-founder and CTO of Smoke Cartel, a popular online head shop based out of Savannah, Georgia. (The site won the High Times Cannabis Cup “Best Glass” Award in 2018.) He is also director of e-commerce for a publicly-traded cannabis company in Canada, where recreational cannabis is federally legal. After stocking up in preparation for COVID-19, Sean’s businesses have seen a five-to-six-time increase in the past two months.

“That’s on both sides,” he says. “On the consumable side in Canada, we’re seeing a very similar increase, and on the accessories side here in the states, there’s definitely a huge spike in demand.”

He attributes that spike to a variety of factors. From a macroeconomics standpoint, it stands to reason, as physical retailers close, online sales will drive the bulk of people’s purchasing. Even accounting for that bias, “There’s still an additional spike to account for in the cannabis space specifically,” Sean says. “I think that has a lot to do with the fact people are bored and sitting at home.”

Like Erica, Sean reports customers have been buying in greater quantities since the outbreak began—a pattern of behavior akin to “stocking up” on essentials, such as toilet paper and hand sanitizer. He’s also seen a marked increase in new customers—another factor that might explain why the pandemic has been such a boon for the industry.

Nick, a prominent member of Wilmington’s arts community, considers himself “a fairly casual smoker.” He isn’t new to cannabis but has seen his usage go up since he began staying home. “I used to smoke maybe a few times a week,” he says. “Currently, I’m smoking almost every night.”

He recently began smoking before going for runs, and says marijuana can make watching movies or playing video games more exciting. He also smokes to cope with depression and uncertainty. “Weed certainly helps to turn the brain off after you go down the rabbit hole of COVID-19 magazine articles that day,” he says.

Among the most interesting conversations he’s had lately are those with non-smoker friends. They, too, have expressed an increasing curiosity and openness about their own potential cannabis use.

“I can’t quantify this, but my feeling is this has to do with a general reassessment of norms and comfort that a disaster like this can bring,” Nick says.

That mindset would appear consistent with a general relaxing of attitudes around marijuana use in recent years. Over the past month, more than a dozen states have agreed to allow cannabis shops and medical marijuana dispensaries to remain open—recognition, perhaps, that for many cannabis is an indispensable product. There’s also the pharmaceutical component: For millions of Americans, marijuana helps treat everything from chronic pain to Alzheimer’s disease to appetite loss.

As a result, the concept of the slacker stoner has become—if not obsolete—largely a thing of the past. Says Sean, “The social stigma is certainly a lot different nowadays than where we were years ago.”

Some experts predict support for federal cannabis legalization will increase dramatically in the wake of the pandemic. According to CNBC, the U.S. cannabis market is currently valued at approximately $56 billion, with about 90% of sales going untaxed on the black market. Federal legalization would, hypothetically, help stimulate an economy in free fall while creating over a million new jobs.

As long as social distancing remains in effect, it’s clear cannabis use isn’t going to slow down any time soon. “If I’m working from home and don’t have much to do that day, it’s hard for me not to be like, ‘Huh, it’s 11 o’clock, I guess I could smoke a blunt now,’” says Erica. “A lot of people have shared that sentiment. You wake up, you do a couple of things, and sometimes you have the rest of the day, and then what do you do?”

Ed. note: Some names have been changed to protect anonymity of sources.

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