The world changed immeasurably with the arrival of COVID. Countless industries felt the impact of the pandemic, as our daily lives screeched to a halt and a new “normal” was instituted.
While some industries saw massive downturns, others saw unexpected spikes. Cannabis is among the industries that grew during the pandemic. In fact, if there was a winner of COVID, it was cannabis. From flower and vape pens to edibles and beverages, most sectors of the cannabis industry grew in 2020 and into 2021. But how exactly did the pandemic change cannabis use, and perhaps a better question – why?
The fast facts
Who wasn’t smoking during 2020?
Cannabis sales grew 71% from 2019 to 2020, ringing in over $18 billion. And the industry shows no signs of slowing down to pre-COVID levels. 2021 saw a new record, with over $24 billion in cannabis sales in the US alone- an additional 31% growth.
The biggest spike in consumption happened in March of 2020, when COVID-19 took off in North America, with some states seeing a 65-75% increase in sales.
So who was buying? Women were the fastest growing demographic, with consumption growing 51% throughout 2020. But cannabis spending was also divided down generational lines.
A generational divide in pandemic cannabis consumption
According to Headset, a cannabis analytics platform:
Gen Z was the generation with the biggest growth. They grew 60% in cannabis consumption and 40% in purchase sizes. Millennials hold the biggest market share of cannabis, so they grew a mere 8%. But millennials also bought more weed in 2020, growing their purchase sizes by 23% Gen X is the second largest cannabis consuming generation behind Millennials, but surprisingly, their cannabis consumption dropped by 11%. However the Gen X’ers who were still consuming cannabis bought more- increasing their spending by 23%. Boomer consumption also dropped during cannabis by 26%, with many members of this generation at a higher risk for contracting COVID. But like Gen Z, the Boomers who still consumed were spending more, increasing purchase sizes by 12%
Not only were more people trying cannabis during the pandemic, they were also buying more at once. Fears around supply chain delays, stay at home orders, and increased consumption from regular users all contributed to record-breaking sales numbers in 2020.
How people consumed cannabis during the pandemic
Flower was still queen. Flower sales grew 24% in 2020, but the heaviest spikes were in March, when sales of ounces of flower were up by 100% in legal states.Pre-roll sales decreased across the US and Canada in the initial months of 2020, but grew 58% overall.
Concentrate sales were up 21%Vape pens were also popular, with sales growing 44%
Edibles & more
Non-inhalation methods saw big growth too, as people moved away from smoking and vaping.Edibles sales grew 24% and beverages were up an astounding 57%Capsule sales went up 44%Concentrates grew by 21% Topicals were up 9%The only consumption category that didn’t grow was tinctures, which decreased by 1%.
Even though flower remained popular, COVID-19 was a respiratory disease that made people cautious about their lung health – no one wanted to be caught coughing in public! Plus, sharing a joint, bowl or vape also became much more taboo. This opened the window for edibles, beverages, and other oral and topical consumption methods to gain ground.
Vape cartridges also gained popularity, as one cartridge of concentrate lasts far longer than an eighth or even a quarter of flower, for many people. This made it easier for people to find the relief they were looking for without continually running out of bud.
Why was cannabis so popular during the pandemic?
Cannabis has many uses (all of which are inherently medicinal) and is a recognized self-medicating substance in medical fields.
Unlike alcohol, which is a nervous system depressant, cannabis use is linked to reduced stress and external cannabinoids such as CBD and THC stimulate your endocannabinoid system, which is linked to a plethora of health benefits.
Since cannabis is often used as a coping mechanism, it makes sense that use would grow during the COVID-19 pandemic, an incredibly stressful time for people. When it seemed like the world had shut down and there was nowhere you were allowed to go, you could always sit on your couch and smoke away the woes of the world – with no fear of a next-day hangover.
In legal states, going to buy cannabis was a moment of normalcy for many people during a very abnormal time.
“The dispensary became a place of refuge for many. For our long-term medical patients, shopping at the dispensary was a moment of normality. Many came in just to buy a single item, say hello, and get out of the house,” Felix Vogele, Manager of Columbia Care Retail Operations Illinois, told The Cannigma.
It also became easier to access and order cannabis. Four states legalized cannabis in 2020 and an additional four legalized in 2021. In almost 30 states, dispensaries were deemed essential businesses. With social distancing regulations, many businesses pivoted to online ordering and curbside pickup, making it even easier for people to get their weed.
Was everyone getting high during the pandemic?
Okay, not everyone was getting high in 2020. On the surface these stats can make it seem like everyone was consuming cannabis – but that’s not the case.
A study released in February 2022 found that the increased rate of cannabis use was “marginal among many groups.”
While there were certainly a large number of people who tried cannabis for the first time or returned to the plant after time away, the spike in sales can be heavily attributed to existing consumers who just used more. In a survey by the Brightfield Group, 45% of female respondents said they’re using more cannabis since the pandemic.
A study released in December 2020 surveyed 1,563 cannabis users from the Netherlands and found that 49% of respondents were using cannabis at the same frequency as pre-pandemic, while 41% reported using more.
The study also found that a majority of pre-lockdown daily users remained daily users. Just over 50% of people consuming cannabis pre-lockdown increased their frequency of use, but they were more likely to have consumed cannabis before the pandemic.
Another study examining cannabis use in France during the first lockdown (April-May 2020) showed that 35.5% of cannabis users increased their usage during the lockdown, while 36% reduce or stopped their cannabis usage. Increased use during the pandemic more associated with working from home, being single, and a disruption to employment. Interestingly, those who stopped or decreased their cannabis were also more likely to have depression or anxiety prior to the lockdown, suggesting that under the stressful circumstances of a lockdown that cannabis, THC in particular, may have anxiety provoking effects in certain individuals. 1 2
Additionally, cannabis use didn’t increase everywhere. In states with shelter in place restrictions or a high volume of tourists, sales declined. Growth was also not predictable. Large spikes in sales preceded shelter in place or stay at home orders, while sales dropped significantly while the mandates were in place.
Changes in cannabis: edibles and beverages keep growing
Will all these steps forward make a difference at the US federal level? Maybe. There are several bills that concern cannabis, including the MORE Act and the SAFE Act that are stalled in Congress, but Senator Chuck Schumer’s recently released Cannabis Administration and Opportunity Act has given the cannabis industry new cause to hope.
But while the pandemic didn’t immediately change policy on a federal level, it also didn’t delay anything on the state level. More states are looking at legalizing adult-use cannabis throughout 2022, and if anything, the pandemic may have actually been good for cannabis’ image. Who can forget the study that found CBDa can prevent COVID-9 from binding with healthy cells?
COVID also had an impact on the popularity of certain consumption methods as people considered their lung health more seriously. Even avid smokers expanded their weed cabinets to include edibles and beverages, and sales of these two product categories show no sign of slowing down.
Other non-smoking methods also grew in popularity, as people looked for ways to boost their mood and support their immune systems through topicals, tinctures, and capsules. But smoking isn’t going away any time soon. Flower sales took a slight downturn into 2022, but pre-roll and vape pen sales show that people still love lighting up.
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