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Marijuana Industry Soars In Midwest, Even As Pandemic Lockdown Continues

Illinois and Michigan have seen rising cannabis sales. Meanwhile, in Massachusetts, recreational dispensaries were not deemed "essential" and still face an uncertain timeline for reopening.

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As Illinois went through its first full month of coronavirus-related lockdown, an interesting thing happened with marijuana sales. Rather than drop, recreational marijuana sales reached $37.7 million, the highest total sales since Illinois legalized adult-use cannabis in January of 2020.

Razvan Sera | EyeEm | Getty Images

Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s can take credit for the soaring sales - or, at least, for not impeding them. Rather than close dispensaries, Pritzker made them an essential business, allowing them to stay open even as he put the state under stay-at-home orders that now extend through May.

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That’s led to long lines at dispensaries. Initial increased demand was also seen in other states where dispensaries have been allowed to stay open, such as California. Even under a lockdown, sales figures in April were higher than in March, when the announcement of impending business closings and stay-at-home orders caused a sales surge in cannabis.

The $37.7 million in sales happened even though dispensaries had to operate under different orders. These included enforcing social distancing, creating an online ordering system, and pivoting to curbside pickup.

It’s also led people to seek new jobs in cannabis. One woman lost her job at a restaurant due to COVID-19 only to find a new job at a dispensary. “This is going to give me a sense of being able to help people in a way that I have never experienced before,” she told the Chicago Tribune.  “It’s just going to be so fulfilling.”

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Michigan also has seen sales rise as dispensaries were made “essential.”

Another Midwestern state has seen recreational cannabis sales rise. In Michigan, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer decided to put marijuana dispensaries on the essential business list. As in Illinois, the businesses had to comply with new rules that allowed them to make sales only through delivery or curbside pickup.

Michigan started legal recreational marijuana sales on Dec. 1, 2019, just one month before Illinois.

Between March 9 and May 10, as the coronavirus has swept across the nation, Michigan dispensaries sold about $54.6 million in recreational marijuana. And it’s been rising, as consumers purchased more than $7 million a week in the four weeks leading up to May 10.

Those sales make up 60 percent of all recreational cannabis sales in Michigan since legal sales began. The state also has raked in about $9.2 million in excise taxes and $6 million in sales tax revenue.

It’s a different story in Massachusetts. 

Facing the same decision as Pritzker and Whitmer, Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker decided not to make recreational dispensaries an essential business. It’s been a point of contention ever since as dispensaries fear never reopening and cannabis consumers go without recreational weed.

Gov. Baker did allow medical marijuana businesses to remain open. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the number of people applying for a medical marijuana license increased in April. Meanwhile, dispensaries such as Solar Therapeutics in Somerset that had seen sales growth month-over-month before the epidemic. Now, the storefronts face an uncertain future.

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“It's been awful as far as from a business planning perspective," Solar Therapeutics CEO Edward Dow said in an interview with WJAR TV. "It's been really, really bad when you lose all your sales and are spending that much and growing that fast."

He also has been forced to lay off more than three dozen employees and shelved expansion plans, at least for now. He voiced hope the state would allow recreational dispensaries to open as part of the first phase of reopening in the state planned for the second half of May.

In the meantime, a group of dispensaries joined together to sue the state and Gov. Baker. The suit asks to reopen cannabis adult-use storefronts, and claims the continued lockdown could cause serious harm to the state’s cannabis industry.

Other states have seen sales spikes or, at least, a steady continuation. For example, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis made medical marijuana an essential industry. Sales there have increased and stayed at a higher level throughout the crisis. Maryland also has seen sales remain average.

Other places expect to take a hit. For example. Colorado eventually decided to leave marijuana dispensaries open, but state officials expect a 2.7 percent dip in sales because Colorado depends on marijuana tourists who aren’t traveling right now.

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