‘In times like this, vices go up’: Legal cannabis sales hit record high in May

More Canadians may be indulging in quarantine kush during the COVID-19 pandemic as retail cannabis sales reached new peaks in May.

Statistics Canada data released Tuesday showed a four-per-cent swell from April to May, with sales reaching a record $186 million.

“In times like this I do think that vices go up,” said Cameron Brown, spokesperson for Toronto cannabis store The Hunny Pot Cannabis Co.

But Brown says the Toronto pot shop, the city’s first legal location that opened its doors in April 2019, hasn’t experienced the spike itself and neither have the cannabis retailers he knows.

“Everything has really taken a hit this year,” he told over the phone on Tuesday. Even though the business has opened four new stores in 2020, they’ve seen revenues drop by 30 per cent since January and February.

The company, which operates its flagship location on Queen Street in Toronto, relied heavily on tourism and residents leaving their homes to go to downtown offices. Neither of those revenue streams have been active since mid-March when much of the country faced widespread movement restrictions to stop the spread of the virus that has killed more than 8,800 Canadians.

“We’ve seen that business greatly diminish since March. We went on that downward trend for March, April, May and then started to see things picking up in June,” he said. He expects business will increase this month and in August as Toronto gets closer to “Phase 3,” which the city has been excluded from along with other COVID-19 hot spots in Ontario.

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Brown suspects other marijuana retailers have experienced similar decreases in revenues, despite the StatCan data.

“It begs the question of who is really seeing that influx (in sales) during this period,” said Brown.

It’s possible that none of them are, he suggested, as the data could simply reflect an increase in the number of legal cannabis stores in the country — and in its most populous province in particular. Late last year, Ontario announced it would scrap its controversial lottery system for approving new retailers in favour of an open allocation system in 2020. In April, the province began issuing about 20 cannabis store authorizations monthly with a stated goal of 1,000. 

“We have said all along that opening more legal stores is the most effective way to combat the illicit market, protect our kids and keep our communities safe,” said Attorney General Doug Downey in a news release in December.

Between January and April, the Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario authorized nearly 50 new cannabis retailers. Other provinces have continued to authorize new retailers as well this year. In Alberta, there are close to 500 cannabis providers operating in the province, an increase of more than 200 since September. 

Meanwhile, alcohol sales have remained relatively steady during the pandemic, except for a brief spike in March, when beer, wine and liquor store sales surged by more than 15 per cent. 

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