Forcing millions of people to stay at home to quell the spread of a raging pandemic was good for more than just the toilet paper industry. The week after Gov. Gretchen Whitmer told everyone to self-quarantine in March, Michiganders obeyed by hunkering down and heading out for just the essentials: food, water, and … weed.
As it turns out, when it feels like society is collapsing, folks need something to take the edge off. “At the beginning, everyone thought the world was going to end,” says Jake Abraham, owner and operator of the recreational pot shop Sticky Ypsi in Ypsilanti, who says sales at his provisioning center are up 20 percent since the lockdown began. “People have been locked in their houses with nothing to do.”
That first week, from March 22-28, Abraham and his competitors sold more than $4.5 million worth of cannabis products, nearly tripling their sales for the first week that recreational cannabis was legal in the state last December, according to the Michigan Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs. (Sales for the week before the stay-at-home order were even higher, totaling $5.8 million — a sign, perhaps, that the looming pandemic had already sent people to provisioning centers in large numbers.) And the number continued to rise. For the week of May 3-9, the state reported nearly $8 million in recreational cannabis sales, a 3.8 percent increase from the week before and a 65 percent increase over the week of April 5-11.
Lest we conclude that Michiganders are unusually heavy consumers of cannabis, COVID-19 has spurred huge weed sales increases across the country, according to the State of the Cannabis Industry: 2020, an industry white paper. Nationwide sales so far in 2020 are up 40 percent over 2019, the industry reports.
Michigan is a special case, though. This was always expected to be a big year for cannabis sales here because the Mitten State became the 10th — and first in the Midwest — to begin allowing the sale and use of non-medicinal marijuana. A 2018 legalization referendum passed 56 percent to 44 percent in the state, and the new law became effective Dec. 1, 2019. Since then, recreational sales have climbed steadily, setting a new one-month record of $59.7 million in September, says Robin Schneider, executive director of the Michigan Cannabis Industry Association (MiCIA), which advocates for Michigan’s medical and adult-use cannabis industry. That number is up from $57.4 million in July.
The key to such growth was a quick pivot to accommodate the new normal of pandemic retail. Provisioning centers closed their lobbies, switched to curbside pickup, and began offering delivery services. To procure personal protective equipment at a time when front-line medical and grocery workers struggled to find enough and the governor battled the president over a dearth of federal supplies, MiCIA hired people to sew thousands of masks for provisioning center workers and had staff members deliver them to facilities as gifts.
The rise in demand for cannabis is also creating an expanded need for labs to test products for safety and potency. Infinite Chemical Analysis Labs in Jackson, for example, opened in July after the California-based firm learned testing in Michigan was taking as long as three weeks in some cases. The process should take no more than five days, lab director David Egerton says.
The lab started out testing about 15 samples each week, a figure that quickly rose to about 100, Egerton says. Infinite expanded its staff from eight to 21 to accommodate the demand. “Business has picked up more and more,” he says. “People are at home, isolated, and anxious. We expect it to continue to grow.”
Schneider says 2020 would have been a huge year for Michigan’s cannabis industry even without COVID-19 because the product is newly available here and still hard to obtain regionally. Still, she says she’s heard from a number of people who say they’ve switched from alcohol to cannabis products to help manage their pandemic-induced anxiety.
Regardless of the reason, demand for weed shows no sign of slowing. Ali Alqetrani, who works at the Skymint provisioning center in Ann Arbor, says both the number of customers and the amount of money spent per purchase have risen during the pandemic. He’s seen customers spend more than $1,500 in a single visit.
“Sales significantly increased with COVID-19,” Alqetrani says. “The adjusting process took a minute, but we’ve figured things out.”