Alberta led Canada in pot sales during COVID-19 lockdown

Over the last 2 years, Alberta has been one of the top 3 provinces in cannabis sales, despite having the 4th largest population.

Statistics Canada has been tracking cannabis sales in Canada since October 2018. I thought I’d go through the data to see if it’d tell us anything useful.

The data runs from October 2018 until September 2020, so basically two years. Retail sales at cannabis stores across the country increased from just over $42 million in 2018 to over $256 million this past September, a 609% increase.

We shouldn’t be surprised that it increased. After all, it made sense that sales would continue to increase after the federal government legalized cannabis.

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More useful information would be what that growth looks like in comparison to retail sales as a whole.

Well, retail sales as a whole don’t seem to be on the same trajectory. They started at $52.4 billion in 2018 and finished at $55.2 billion this past September. Retail sales peaked in May 2019 at $57.7 billion, but bottomed early in the pandemic at $34.9 billion. On average, total retail sales hovered around $50.4 billion during this 2-year period.

Now let’s look at commercial cannabis sales relative to total retail sales.

The numbers still keep increasing.

Cannabis sales make up a tiny portion of total retail sales in Canada: ranging from only 0.08% in 2018 to 0.46% this past September. Even after two years, cannabis has yet to crack even half of a percent of total retail.

There were a couple of things I found interesting from this data though.

First, while cannabis has increased in absolute dollars by over 600% over a 2-year period, relative to total retail sales, it increased by only 475%. Which means some of that absolute growth can be attributed to growth in retail sales as a whole.

As well, its highest percentage was 0.51%, which it hit this past April, early in the pandemic. It’s represented by the huge spike on the chart just above.

It’d be easy to interpret this as people buying more pot as a coping mechanism, or perhaps because of getting the CERB. However, notice that the first chart doesn’t seem to indicate a large increase in total commercial cannabis sales in April 2019. In fact, total cannabis sales decreased that month by $2.75 million, from $181.2 million in March down to $178.4 million.

People were paying less for cannabis in April 2020. So why is it a higher percentage of total retail sales? Well, because retail sales dropped so significantly that it made a slight drop in cannabis sales seem like an increase.

Same goes for the drop in percentage following that increase. That may seem as though fewer people were buying cannabis, but that wasn’t the case. Sales were up $14.8 million in May 2020 over the previous month, despite being 0.39% of total retail, down from 0.51% in April. However, overall retail sales shot back up, which caused relative sales of cannabis to drop.

Regardless, commercial cannabis sales are clearly increasing in Canada.

But how are provincial sales?

It shouldn’t be that surprising that Ontario (green) leads the provinces in total monthly commercial cannabis sales. They do have the largest population of all the provinces after all.

What I do find interesting is that Alberta (blue) has the second highest sales of commercial cannabis. And they’ve been pretty consistent at that.

The first month, they were clearly in third place. In late 2018 and early 2019, they were actually in first place. Then they and Québec battled it out in a tight race between second and third place for about a year. Alberta broke away from Québec at the start of the pandemic and it hasn’t even been close since then.

In fact, Alberta beat out Ontario for top retail cannabis sales in April and May this year, then finally settling back into second place for the rest of the year. Actually, Alberta cannabis sales during the third quarter of 2020 were pretty stagnant, hovering between $12.6 million and $12.8 million.

Which is interesting, considering that Alberta doesn’t have the second largest population of all the provinces, let alone the second largest. Its population is the 4th largest, yet it has consistently had the highest or second highest sales numbers for most of the last 2 years.

Speaking of Alberta’s commercial cannabis industry, they’ve been leading the country in percentage of total retail sales, ever since the pandemic.

Alberta’s the purple in that chart.

All those lines can make it a bit confusing, so here’s another chart showing just September 2020:

It’s at 0.75% of total retail sales, the highest of all the provinces; although Saskatchewan is nipping at our heels, with just 0.74%.

Alberta’s percentage of total retail sales shot up during the first two months of the COVID-19 lockdown this spring, peaking at 0.87%. The next highest was Saskatchewan again, but the spread was much larger; they came in at 0.76%

Which is interesting, considering that Alberta was the third lowest in October 2018, when percentage of total retail sales was only 0.08%.

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By Kim Siever

Kim Siever is an independent queer journalist based in Lethbridge, Alberta. He writes daily news articles, focusing on politics and labour.

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