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COVID-19 Leads to Spike in Dark Web Sales, Home Growers


Consumers are getting creative when it comes to scoring cannabis in a pandemic.


Back in the early days of the pandemic, people were in supply-gathering mode.

At the time, the term “shelter-in-place” still felt exotic. Even as uncertainties over what comes next remain widespread to this day, the instinct to stockpile has thankfully begun to dwindle. Regardless, there was a time when the demand for just about everything — be it toilet paper, flour, or Nintendo Switches — was vociferously beating the supply.

Cannabis, of course, was no exception.

Sales in legal U.S, markets were notably high in the last weeks of March and the early part of April. Deemed “essential” by the majority of local governments, cannabis businesses were only too happy to help customers strengthen their pandemic supplies of tinctures, edibles, and more.

May and June have not been as kind. The cause is likely multi-faceted, compounding reduced foot traffic, the loss of in-person 4/20 sales, and a customer base now potentially dealing with reduced income or a surplus of product. However, even as the larger picture drifts closer to ominous territory, the habits of consumers reveal that their affinity for weed is unquestionably not the issue.

For instance, many in Europe reportedly turned to the dark web as source for cannabis during their countries’ initial COVID-19 shutdowns. According to a study published in the most recent issue of the Journal of Addiction Medicine, “retail marijuana sales on some dark-net markets spiked significantly in the first months of the pandemic.”

Conducted by the European Monitoring Center for Drugs and Drug Addiction, the study’s findings reveal that “mostly Europe-based buyers” made over 14,000 pot purchases on dark web markets like Cannazon, Versus, and Agartha in March. When compared with January, the numbers reflect a 30% increase in overall sales volume.

In an analysis of the report, Wired notes that while sales increased, the resulting revenue from said sales dropped during the same timeframe. In short, a ton of people were buying small amounts of cannabis and the bottom line is still less money than pre-pandemic figures.

But why go to the dark market?

Certainly its appeal as a digital alternative for real-world, unregulated sellers is massive. Unable to sell cannabis as they normally would, some apparently set-up shops online. Conversely, with less opportunity to move product person-to-person, sellers who source their product from the dark web are themselves reducing or pausing orders. Thus, while the dark market might be aiding individual consumers during the pandemic, it does not appear to be doing much for sellers.

In addition to illicit online sales, the regulated market is also facing another familiar foe: homegrowers. Switching focus back to the U.S., a green thumb craze appears to be in full effect. At Oakland’s Harborside dispensary, for example, people are waiting for up to three hours to buy a clone plant.

Speaking with East Bay Express, Harborside Oakland’s general manager Pedro Fonesca said clones are flying off the shelves. Given clones can’t be found at most dispensaries, the fact that all of Harborside’s Bay Area locations sell them has made the chain a popular spot for customers looking to grow at home.

The reason for the wait stems from the fact that clones arrive without warning. Once they do, Fonseca noted, they’re selling-out almost instantly.

At the time he was interviewed, Fonseca was expecting around 2,500 clones to shortly arrive. He estimated they’d all be gone in two or three days. Up and down the California supply chain — from soil to clones — it appears to be a game of catching-up with demand.

In the case of both European dark web sales and the exploding U.S. market for home-growers, the numbers suggest a customer base untrusting of the legal industry’s ability to consistently deliver. Even if the image one imagines when reading about a dark web purchase contrasts greatly with that of a backyard cannabis grower, they are truly more alike than different.

Even if their preferred methods of action straddle either side of the law, their interest is, in its most reduced form, having access to cannabis. That desire for this access has led some to skirt the law and others to take matters into their own hands speaks to the fact that people will always find a way to get weed.

Are regulated markets willing and able to co-exist with this truth? The answer is unfolding before our very eyes.

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