On 4/20, Coronavirus Is Killing the Buzz

Bud in the time of the coronavirus. Photo: MediaNews Group/Los Angeles Daily News via Getty Images

On April 20, 2019, Seattle pot shop Uncle Ike’s celebrated the most important day on the stoner calendar with a party promising “so much action it’ll make your brain freak.” There were bouncy houses, glassblowers, and a petting zoo with live wallabies. It was both a cannabis carnival and an opportunity to keep the cash register ringing. In 2020, owner Ian Eisenberg was planning to top it. “After five years of dreaming, we were finally going to have a mariachi band,” he said. “No more.”

Like nearly every other business in the cannabis industry, Uncle Ike’s has had its 4/20 plans upended by COVID-19 and the quarantines put in place to slow the virus’s spread. Organizers have called off major festivals. Dispensaries have canceled promotions and furloughed food trucks. Long-awaited concerts have been moved from major venues to Zoom URLs. Now, experts say the outlook for the unofficial industry holiday is dim.

Without the street festivals and communitywide parties, “4/20 is going to be a quieter, less impactful holiday,” said Serge Chistov, CFO of Honest Marijuana and an industry expert. With 95 percent of Americans under stay-at-home orders and gatherings of all sizes canceled, 4/20 won’t have the same effect on sales, marketing, and promotion as it has in the past, he said. Chistov is resigned to hoping for a morale boost. “I’m looking at 4/20 as being another industry holiday to put smiles on people’s faces.”

That’s not what April 20, 2020, was supposed to be. As the number of states with recreational weed has grown — it’s up to 11, plus Washington, D.C. — and cannabis has become a nearly $14 billion-dollar business, 4/20 has evolved from a counterculture celebration caroling an insider reference to marijuana’s most profitable day of the year. Along with the smoke-filled concerts, there are countless doorbusters and in-store promotions that can provide a one-day surge in sales for dispensaries. In 2019, stores saw a 128 percent boost on 4/20, according to data from Headset.

This year’s edition was primed to be even bigger. Not only were some dispensaries planning to celebrate it all month long — this is the first 4/20/20 in a century, after all — but it’s the first year of legal cannabis in Chicago, the country’s third-largest city. “This 4/20 was going to be on a whole ‘nother level,” a spokesperson for Dispensary 33 told the Chicago Sun-Times. Instead, the dispensary’s street festival was moved to Twitch.

But the fate of 4/20 was sealed on 3/16, when the CDC recommended the cancellation of any event with 50 or more participants. On the same day, several Bay Area counties told residents to “shelter in place,” advising them to leave home only for essential activities. Similar restrictions soon spread across the country, along with limits on gatherings and orders closing businesses deemed nonessential.

Initially, the news wasn’t so bad for the cannabis industry; it seems marijuana and toilet paper have something in common. In the week following the White House’s mid-March recommendation that people avoid crowds, work from home, and limit travel, recreational weed sales jumped 50 percent, according to one data-tracking firm. In California, sales shot up 159 percent over March 2019, while Washington and Colorado saw a 100 and 46 percent increase, respectively.

Unlike with toilet paper, though, the buying surge didn’t last. Sales slowed in the second half of March — though not as much as they might have. Orders deeming dispensaries essential in many states, including California, Washington, Illinois, and Nevada, “cushioned the blow to the cannabis industry,” says David Downs, California editor for Leafly, an online resource for information on all things weed. “The industry is a part of the American economy, which is undergoing radical damage, so that is dragging it down over all. But cannabis’s essentiality is buffering it from the winds that are howling through the greater economy.”

Products may have been flying out of dispensaries in March, but organizers of big 4/20 events saw which way the wind was blowing. The people behind San Francisco’s 420 Hippie Hill event were among the first to pull the plug, canceling the celebration on March 19. Denver’s FlyHi 420 Festival followed. Major events in Vancouver, Sacramento, and D.C. have also been canceled or postponed. One 4/20 concert with Ice Cube, Method Man, and Redman at Red Rocks Amphitheater in Colorado was pushed to October, optimistically. Organizers are instead livestreaming a concert featuring members of the Disco Biscuits, among others.

Like everything from school to orgies, many 4/20 celebrations are going online. “I’m tracking dozens upon dozens of concerts, livestreams, Instagram Story live DJ sessions, Zoom world-record smoke outs,” said Downs. Bong rips at home in front of a webcam may not spark as much joy as a shoulder-to-shoulder 4:20 countdown in a crowd of thousands, but the organizing ingenuity feels familiar to Downs: “I’m seeing cannabis people who have always had to be really resilient and creative in the face of a full-on federal war for decades, dust themselves off, get up, and find a way to keep the flame alive.”

Dispensaries have increased the availability of delivery and pickup and are offering online deals in the place of in-store promotions. Still, a 4/20 without congregation, community, and wallabies just won’t be the same. “The financial impact is secondary to the feeling that a little part of our collective soul is dying,” said Eisenberg from Uncle Ike’s.

On 4/20, Coronavirus Is Killing the Buzz