For many people, the pandemic lockdowns increased feelings of boredom, anxiety and loneliness. So it's hardly a surprise that marijuana use increased, just as alcohol consumption did.
But you might be surprised at just how much more cannabis Washingtonians are using now than they were before the pandemic.
Data from the Washington State Alcohol and Cannabis Control Board shows sales increased statewide by $450 million, or about 43%, from the 2019 to 2021 fiscal years. The total retail sales in 2021 were nearly $1.5 billion.
Cannabis sales also generated more than $550 million in excise taxes for the state, most of which will be spent on public health programs, as prescribed by Washington's 2012 marijuana legalization measure.
Fiscal year 2019 covers the period from July 1, 2018, to June 30, 2019, and fiscal year 2021 covers the period from July 1, 2020, to June 30, 2021.
Of Washington's 39 counties, all but Garfield and Franklin counties have at least one cannabis retailer. In all of these 37 counties, sales increased by percentages in the double digits from the 2019 to 2021 fiscal years. Still, there was a wide range in the amount that sales increased from county to county.
The sales data suggests that cannabis use increased the most in more rural parts of the state during the pandemic, particularly in Eastern Washington. The biggest jump in sales was in Lincoln County, just west of Spokane County, where sales more than doubled from around $800,000 in 2019 to nearly $1.4 million in 2021.
"That doesn't surprise me at all," said Elijah Hubert, a budtender at Molecule Cannabis, one of two retailers in Davenport, Lincoln County's largest city. "I'd have six cars out front and 10 customers in the store ... in the early spring when the pandemic first hit."
He says that many of the new customers were folks who had been laid off and who didn't know when they'd be going back to work.
"It may have been the first time they could use cannabis in 10 years," Hubert said. "They didn't know what they were looking for because they hadn't smoked in so long."
He says a lot of customers used their unemployment payments to stock up on weed, sometimes spending $300 to $400 on the first day they came in.
Sales are not as brisk at Molecule right now as they were earlier in the pandemic, Hubert says. He thinks that may be because things are starting to return to normal, but it could just be a normal winter slowdown.
The other counties where retail sales of cannabis increased by more than 100% were Pend Oreille and Stevens, both north of Spokane.
Klickitat County, in southern Washington just east of Vancouver, saw a modest 18% increase in cannabis retail sales, the smallest growth in the state.
As you'd expect, King County had the greatest volume in sales in 2021, at almost $383 million, and also the largest increase in dollars — up $85 million from the 2019 fiscal year. But as a rate of growth, that pencils out to 29%, which is a slower than the statewide average.
Although three rural Eastern Washington counties had the most impressive spikes in retail sales, these areas were not large consumers of marijuana to begin with.
I calculated per capita sales data for each county using the 2020 Census population figures for the 18-and-older population (21-and-older figures are not available). Even with the spending more than doubling in Lincoln, Pend Oreille and Stevens counties, all three remain below the statewide average for 2021, which was $251 per person. In fact, Pend Oreille still had the lowest per capita spending among all the counties in 2021, at just $67.
Retail spending in King County pencils out to $211 per person, lower than the statewide average, and lower than the two other counties in the Seattle metro area, Snohomish ($245) and Pierce ($268).
The highest spending per capita was in Asotin County, and it's an eye-popping figure: $866 per person. That's more than double the per capita amount of the next highest county. In Asotin, there were $15 million dollars in sales for an adult population of less than 18,000 in the county.
So what's happening in Asotin?
Most likely, this figure is inflated by sales to folks from neighboring Idaho, where marijuana is illegal, whether for recreational or medical use. Clarkston, the largest city in Asotin County, is part of the Lewiston, Idaho metro area, which has an adult population of about 51,000. I suspect that the cannabis retailers in Clarkston are largely supported by customers from across the state line.
The No. 2 county is Spokane, where per capita sales were $388 — that figure, too, is probably buoyed by sales from Idaho, although more modestly. The city of Coeur d'Alene, Idaho is just minutes away from a number of cannabis retailers in Spokane County.
Unlike Idaho, Oregon has legal marijuana, so Washington's counties along the southern border are not as likely to be picking up out-of-state business.
The highest per capita spending in a Washington county not bordering Idaho was in Grays Harbor, a coastal county in Southwestern Washington, and home to the city of Aberdeen. The county's 60,000 adults spent more than $21 million on cannabis in 2021, for a per capita figure of $347. And I suppose that makes Grays Harbor the true marijuana capital of Washington.