Coloradans found many ways to bide their time during the COVID-19 pandemic: exploring the mountains, taking up baking, learning to roller skate, adopting dogs, and, yes, getting high. Perhaps not surprisingly, the mind-altering, stress-relieving, and boredom-busting qualities of cannabis proved even more enticing to locals in 2020, at least according to Colorado Department of Revenue data that shows from January to October alone, potheads spent more money on marijuana ($1,829,603,225) than they did in all of 2019.
That was a relief for people like Christopher York, the general manager of retail operations at Denver’s Verde Natural marijuana dispensary. “During the initial lockdown, we were incredibly stressed out here,” he says, “but our revenue and traffic shot through the roof.” In March—as people prepared to hunker down for the foreseeable future and stocked up on, um, necessities—Verde Natural’s revenue was 50 percent higher than the previous month. “We had lines around the block…people were bulk buying,” York says.
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Most customers, York explains, have been opting for stress-relieving strains, like CBD-laced products, “exponentially” more frequently than before the pandemic. Verde Natural also addressed the fact that puff-puff-pass practices had become potentially lethal by offering 10 pre-rolled joints for $50—which he says they took a hit on—to encourage users to smoke personal joints instead of sharing.
That customers could still shop—and dispensaries could enjoy sky-high sales—might have been in part due to emergency regulations that Colorado’s Marijuana Enforcement Division (MED) released in March in order to help dispensary owners cater to customers while also staying safe. Online and phone sales, which pre-COVID-19 were illegal, were approved—and encouraged—in order to cut down on the time shoppers spent in stores. Additionally, the MED authorized curbside pick-up, further decreasing the exposure risk for both employees and customers. The emergency rules also emphasized that cannabis businesses had to adhere to the state’s public health regulations, such as required mask-wearing and social distancing.
Dispensaries were, on the whole, willing to comply, says Dominique Mendiola, the deputy director of MED, and many of them had a say in how some of these rules became permanent. “We coordinated with stakeholders and worked closely with licensees and industry groups,” Mendiola says. Indeed, many dispensary employees, including York, have liked curbside pick-up and online and phone sales so much that they want the changes to stick around after the pandemic. In MED’s August rule-making session, that wish was partially granted by the department: Starting in 2021, curbside pick-ups will become a permanent option for dispensaries. (MED doesn’t have the authority to permanently allow online and phone sales; those changes will have to go through the Legislature to become law.)
Another tool that dispensaries will soon be able to add to their arsenals is delivery services. In 2019, HB19-1234 passed, allowing dispensaries to ferry their goods straight to Coloradans’ homes. The law goes into effect for recreational operations in January 2021; medical marijuana stores have been allowed to deliver since January 2020. It’s up to municipalities whether or not they will allow it in their jurisdiction (Denver City Council is the body that can legalize delivery within city limits; Denver’s Department of Excise and Licenses has formally recommended that the Council do so), but Mendiola says there’s already been widespread interest in delivery from many operation owners.
Though Mayor Michael Hancock famously declared—and immediately reversed course—that recreational dispensaries were considered nonessential during the early days of the pandemic, Coloradans have proven they consider weed to be absolutely necessary, especially during a year as rife with anxiety-inducing events as 2020. In the hours after Hancock made his announcement, hordes of people swarmed dispensaries. When that short-lived rule was renounced, the blocks-long lines dissipated; however, insanely high sales have not abated. While few businesses have been completely immune to the consequences of the pandemic, York says, “In an odd way, it’s been incredibly beneficial to our business.”