Sunday, August 2, 2020
The question in the title of this post is prompted by the headline of this new Politico piece which is fully headlined "The pandemic is eating away at the illicit marijuana market: Legal sales have boomed since March, though it’s hard to say how many customers previously bought from illegal dealers." Here are excerpts:
The legal marijuana industry has spent years battling illegal sellers who have eaten away at its market share and undercut its prices. But the coronavirus has proven to be a boon for legal pot shops, as customers fear the risks associated with inhaling questionable products and are nervous about letting sellers into their homes.
Legal operations have moved quickly to take advantage of the situation, seizing on relaxed rules to expand shopping options in states across the country, including curbside pickups and deliveries. Also, pandemic-frazzled Americans are simply getting stoned more often.
“It's understandable that people may be more hesitant to get their products from sources that are unregulated,” said Kris Krane, CEO of 4Front Ventures, which operates dispensaries in multiple states. “They may not want to go to their dealer’s house, or they may not want to have their dealer come into their house, at a time when people are social distancing and not supposed to be interacting with people that they don't know.”
In addition, cities that never allowed pot shops in their towns, even in states where marijuana is legal, are rethinking the local bans in search of fresh tax revenue. And more people than ever are registered as medical marijuana patients: Florida added nearly 5,000 patients a week in June, and more than 50,000 since March.
The data is murky — credible sales figures on illegal marijuana transactions are inherently difficult to come by — and it’s likely that those sales are also booming as anxious Americans smoke more weed while hunkered down. But many close industry watchers believe the current circumstances are pushing more Americans into state-legal markets. Revenues are expected to hit $17 billion this year, according to New Frontier Data — a 25 percent spike over 2019.
Mitch Baruchowitz, managing partner at cannabis investment firm Merida Capital Partners, argued in a paper in May that the pandemic is “cannibalizing” the illegal market. He hasn’t seen anything in the ensuing months to change that assessment. “The vast majority of the current growth in the cannabis space is being driven by consumers transitioning from the black market to the legal market,” Baruchowitz wrote.
The boom in sales is driven in large part by new legal markets, particularly the start of recreational sales in Illinois and Michigan. But even some states with relatively mature markets have seen big spikes in sales. In Oregon, for example, monthly revenues jumped from just below $70 million during the first two months of this year to more than $100 million in May and June....
Even with this year’s rapid growth, however, the legal marijuana market is still dwarfed by illegal sales, which New Frontier estimates at $63 billion for this year. Nowhere is the underground weed market a bigger problem than in California, where it’s estimated that 80 percent of marijuana sales are still from illegal sources — and most industry officials are deeply skeptical that the pandemic will significantly alter that reality in the short term....
Michigan faces a similar problem in quashing illegal sales: The vast majority of cities in the state — including Detroit — still don’t allow recreational pot shops to operate. In addition, marijuana cultivation is still ramping up in the state, since full legalization only took effect in December. “Demand, especially in the adult-use market, is still higher than the supply as the production in the industry continues to grow,” said Andrew Brisbo, executive director of Michigan’s Marijuana Regulatory Agency. “That keeps prices still higher than I think they will be in the long term.”
Industry officials are divided on whether the pandemic is eroding the illicit marijuana market, but there’s little doubt that the current economic troubles will push more states to consider legalization. That’s in large part because states' desperation for cash is only going to grow. Even if marijuana taxes would only make a difference at the margins, it undoubtedly will prove enticing to lawmakers.
Some New York lawmakers are pushing this idea, after legalization efforts failed in each of the last two years. They’ll likely face even greater pressure to enact recreational sales if New Jersey voters pass a recreational legalization referendum in November, as expected. Even in deep red states, the idea is likely to get a good look. A Republican lawmaker in Oklahoma has argued the state should look at allowing recreational sales, suggesting it could raise $100 million per year.