I have been a resident of the Evergreen State for decades, but recently had the pleasure of visiting New England where I grew up, and then driving back home. While visiting 14 states and stopping at a few cannabis dispensaries along the way, I started thinking about the state of cannabis and how legal supply and demand is growing across the nation.
Currently 18 states and the District of Columbia have legalized cannabis for adult use, and 36 states have approved medical marijuana programs. This means about 44% of the U.S. population live in states where recreational marijuana is legal.
Previously, states such as California, Washington and Oregon ranked at the top as far as growers, but other states have surpassed them with huge indoor production in locations like New Mexico, Arizona and Colorado.
States such as Massachusetts and Maine are taking the lead in the East, while other states are poised to flourish as legalization makes way for opportunity, including Illinois and New Jersey. Kentucky and Tennessee are believed to have the most marijuana grown outdoors (albeit illegally) and Colorado ranks No. 1 in hemp production.
According to recent Gallup statistics:
• Two percent of Americans consider themselves active marijuana users.
• Nationwide cannabis sales increased 67% in 2020.
• Support for legal marijuana is at an all-time high of 68%.
• The U.S. cannabis industry is now worth over $61 billion.
In other words, cannabis is growing exponentially, and at this point the question of nationwide marijuana legalization is not a matter of if, but when.
Hit the road
Our first stop on our reefer road trip west was Maine, where cannabis has been legal since 2016. Sales are limited to certain counties, recreational and medical sales are separate, and it’s legal to grow at home for personal consumption. Dispensaries are often in picturesque apothecary-like shops or historical buildings, and on a small scale. It’s also incredibly expensive.
For example, we saw daily specials such as “five for $5 pre-rolls” and “two ounces for $420,” and a half-ounce cartridge (typically $20-$40 in Washington) starts at $50. However, we weren’t disappointed at the quality. We ended up at the Wellness Connection in Gardiner, in a historical train station next to the Kennebunk River, and received top-notch service and exceptional flower.
Next, we drove to Massachusetts and found things more challenging. We were not near Boston and all we could find were medical shops. It was the same situation in New York, with even fewer options, and then into Pennsylvania where recreational is not legal, but medical is big. We couldn’t shop without a card, but there was no limit to options. Billboards dotted the highway. Every city we drove through seemed to have a dispensary, and many of them looked like medical professional buildings with names like The Healing Center.
Our next successful shopping experience was in Illinois, where we visited nuEra in Urbana. In 2019, Illinois became the 11th state to legalize recreational cannabis, and the first to create a system allowing sales and taxation through legislation.
Like Pennsylvania, there were many medical dispensaries, and nuEra had the look and feel of a medical supply store. Product was displayed in cases for viewing only, but budtenders are pretty much the same cool and highly informed individuals you’ll encounter no matter where you go, and they took good care of us.
One of my favorite purchases was made here: Dogwalker pre-rolls.
“Dogwalkers are cannabis pre-rolls inspired by the simple pleasure of leisurely strolls with our special pup, Bailey,” the package reads. “We believe the best pre-rolls offer a moment of unconditional enjoyment, just like a walk around the block with your loyal four-legged friends.” Packaged in an old-fashion tin are five perfect puffs. Entirely worth the trip!
Other than a few tumbleweeds, Iowa and Nebraska were basically absent of anything green, and then into South Dakota where we saw signs everywhere for medical, which just became legal on July 1 after a ballot initiative in November 2020. Recreational use was approved by voters in the same election, but a judge upheld a constitutional challenge to the initiative; the case is now in appeal to the state Supreme Court.
When we hit Wyoming, we decided to hang out and enjoy the sights, and spent time talking to locals about their thoughts on the state of legalization. It’s a bit of a betting war these days on which state will be the last to legalize pot, much like the discussions around raising the drinking age to 21 back in the 1980s.
Which state won that bet? You guessed it, Wyoming.
We stayed at one of the oldest hotels in the West – The Occidental Hotel in Buffalo – where just about anyone we chatted with about weed said the same thing, “Here in Wyoming, we feel what you do is up to you.” In other words, no one seemed to care either way.
Montana, our next stop, was much like medical-friendly South Dakota, but considering its location between Wyoming and Idaho, things might move slower here. The list of qualifying medical conditions is limited compared to states like Pennsylvania, and purchasing limits are not yet established.
Big Sky won the award for majestic beauty however, next to my beloved Washington, of course. After waving at Idaho on our way through at night, we were back home.
Green on the horizon
The last time I made this cross-country trip was in 1990, only two years after Wyoming raised the drinking age, before CD players went extinct and any millennials were born.
And hidden beneath my floor mat may or may not have been a few circumspect joints carefully rolled before I left New England to explore the great West. Much has changed since then, entire cities exist where I remember miles of nothing but rolling hills, but it is still magnificent and full of possibility.
After a year of doubt and concern I feel confident that a new era is about to emerge: it’s paved in green and smells wonderful.
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