Eye On Illinois: Pot sales booming, but program isn’t perfect

If you thought the recreational marijuana market in Illinois might level off after the first year, think again.

Each of the first four months of 2021 saw new record highs in sales per day, continuing a streak where each month is larger than one before that started in April 2020 (January and February 2020 both saw more action than March, otherwise known as the month when the world shut down on account of COVID-19).

In March 2020, the dollars-per-day figure was $1,158,146.56, according to records from the Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation. In April 2021 the figure was $3,832,055.61. If the first-quarter pace simply continues, the year-end sales total would far exceed $1.1 billion. At the end of 2020, the total was just short of $670 million.

The state also tracks the number of items sold. That figure didn’t top 1 million per month until July, but in March 2021 it exceeded 2.3 million and last month jumped again to more than 2.46 million. The daily average this year is 70,025 items, when through all of last year that number was 39,578.

Only one category has seen a drop from 2020: the percentage of sales attributed to Illinois residents. Last year, 74.2% of all sales were in-state customers, while so far this year that’s down to 70.44%. It’s impossible to accurately calculate how much extra economic infusion is attributed to people who cross borders to buy marijuana products in Illinois, but the fact that they’re spending more than $969,000 a day is significant.

In raw numbers, that’s $116,360,888.64 nonresidents spent at legal, recreational dispensaries in the first quarter alone. The 2020 full-year total was just more than $172 million, meaning we’ll likely surpass last year’s mark by late June.

Perhaps most surprising of all these eye-popping numbers is the realization that pot now generates more tax revenue for the state than booze. The Illinois Department of Revenue said marijuana sales created $121 million for the state through April, but alcohol was just shy of $99 million. That’s before tabulating local taxes collected on top of the state’s haul.

Yet with all the successes, challenges remain. The money is flowing to large, well-connected companies, undercutting promises made to minority entrepreneurs and those deemed to be disproportionately affected by prosecution of marijuana offenses that are no longer criminal. The dispensary license application process is the definition of a bureaucratic boondoggle, and paperwork for other interested parties such as craft growers isn’t going smoothly, either.

Lawmakers have plenty of problems to solve before adjourning this month, but they shouldn’t let the cannabis cash infusion blind them to a responsibility to make sure the new system is as equitable as originally intended.

• Scott T. Holland writes about state government issues for Shaw Local News Network. Follow him on Twitter @sth749. He can be reached at sholland@shawmedia.com.