It only took a few months for Illinois' budding recreational marijuana industry to blossom -- even during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Last year, Gov. J.B. Prizker passed bipartisan legislation legalizing marijuana for recreational use and sale in the state -- the 11th in the nation to do so - starting January 1, 2020. When the pandemic struck, dispensaries were deemed essential businesses and were allowed to remain open during lockdown.
Today, it's a booming business -- July alone saw more than $60 million in sales, setting a new record for the state -- topping May and June, which had also set records.
It's a boon for the state, which, like others around the United States, has had to reassess its finances because of the pandemic. In the first six months of the year, the state recouped about $52 million in tax revenue, blowing through its initial estimate for the first half of 2020 of $28 million. About 35% of that tax revenue is returned to local governments, including communities that had been negatively impacted by the criminalization of marijuana.
Other states are seeing similar upticks in recreational pot sales, including Colorado, which has a much more established recreational market.
While polls have shown an increasing number of Americans who say they support legalization of marijuana, there remain ardent opponents, who say states in which the drug is legal have more marijuana-related car crashes and increased young adult use, and that cannabis can be a pathway for other drugs, including opioids.
"We are moving way too fast to legalize in this country without taking into account the costs of such a policy," says Smart Approaches to Marijuana, a leading anti-legalization group. "We need to slow down. The only people who benefit from a rush to legalize are a small number of investors."
But in Schaumberg, Illinois, the opening of their first dispensary was met with enthusiasm, including from local government officials who attended opening day.
At the newly opened Schaumberg, Illinois, location of Sunnyside -- a dispensary chain in nine states -- a line snaked out the door all Saturday afternoon as customers waited to retrieve orders placed online. The new system and other social distancing measures are in place as a response to Covid-19. The Schaumberg location is the largest dispensary in Illinois and the chain's largest in the nation, according to Cresco Labs, which owns Sunnyside.
The sales uptick in Illinois isn't tied only to the pandemic, according to Jason Erkes, a spokesman for Sunnyside and Cresco Labs. But he said he does suspect the pandemic is driving some people to buy more.
"You have more stores opened up providing greater access across the state," Erkes told CNN. "You have more product coming to market, so when people are checking out, people can buy more, and you have the pandemic which just hit, causing a lot of symptoms of anxiety and depression and people are looking to cannabis as an alternative. So, it's really been a perfect storm for the industry."
As Americans struggle with record levels of stress, anxiety, sadness and other mental health challenges as a result of the pandemic, some say they have found relief in marijuana.
One customer, Joshua Simao, said marijuana helps ease not only his back and shoulder pain, but the anxiety he has felt during this uncertain time.
"Right when the pandemic hit, everybody started losing their jobs," Simao said. "I was a victim of that so I really do think that this has helped me deal with that."
Experts have cautioned that smoking or vaping marijuana can raise the risk of more severe Covid-19 complications.
Smoking cannabis causes a degree of inflammation in the airways, similar to bronchitis, and daily smoking can damage the lungs over time, doctors with the American Lung Association say. An infection on top of that can lead to complications.
That concern does not seem to be dampening sales or enthusiasm.
"I think municipalities across the state are seeing stores like this and realizing they made an OK decision to allow a cannabis store in their community and the tax benefit is an insular benefit," Erkes said. "The residents aren't unhappy. They sky isn't falling. And they're getting a nice benefit to help with some of the issues they're having."