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NEWPORT — The Oregon Department of Revenue reported the cannabis industry’s greatest distribution of state tax money for a fiscal year during the period between July 2019 and June. That indicates that while other business are struggling to keep doors open, consumers continue to ingest marijuana at a greater rate with each passing year.

But what effect is this year’s pandemic having on local cannabis retailers?

Ryan Bledsoe, owner of Bernie’s Universal Dispensaries, just south of the Yaquina Bay Bridge, says regardless of social distancing and additional restraints placed on his medicinal and recreational cannabis business, his sales continue to grow.

When asked how this summer’s numbers compare with those of a year ago, Bledsoe said simply, “It’s like night and day. We’re just so much busier.”

On Tuesday, Stephanie Blair at Medication Station in Newport sang a similar tune.

“This summer’s been pretty good,” she said. “Honestly, we’ve had more tourism than we expected given COVID and everything, so we’re very happy about that.”

She added that mandated limits on the number of customers inside the business have hampered efficiency but not overall traffic.

“We obviously have had some complications in terms of social distancing,” she said. “We’re trying to keep everybody safe, so we may have a little bit slower sales, but the number of sales is doing okay.”

For fiscal year 2020, which ended in July, the Department of Revenue numbers updated Aug. 28 reveal the state received an estimated $133,1560,349 in cannabis tax revenue. That’s more than $31 million more than it received during fiscal year 2019, its previous highest-grossing year. Actual state and local tax revenue numbers from cannabis sales will be available after quarterly tax returns are filed.

The current 2020 fiscal year estimate indicates the pandemic’s first four months— March through June — did not stem the increase in marijuana sales just as in each previous year dating back to fiscal year 2016. 

Bledsoe theorized that customers are making fewer shopping trips during the pandemic, but they’re more apt to buy in bulk in limiting trips outside the home.

“It’s not that we’re having more people come through our door, but definitely we’re seeing the average sale go from $10 to now where’s it’s about $50,” he said. “I think the reason is you’re stuck at home where usage numbers go up, you’re not traveling as much, you’re doing only essential shopping I think, so maybe the average person that we’re seeing is getting five days worth of product as opposed to stopping in here every day after work for one day’s worth.”

Estimates from the Department of Revenue show that in July, cannabis sales contributed nearly $15.3 million to the state in tax revenue. That number was $11.8 million in July 2019 and $8.75 million the year prior.

Local taxes received were nearly $2.4 million for the month of July 2020, $1.83 million in July 2019 and almost $1.35 million in 2018. 

Blair said the biggest challenge this summer for employees at Medication Station has been their need to curb their hands-on approach to serving customers.

“Our biggest struggle is that our budtenders want to be up close, and we’re very huggie people,” ” Blair said. “We have regulars who love our staff and who we love, and we want them to get the time that they deserve and the customer service they deserve in here. We try to give them that, but that means that sometimes people have to wait out here in the hallway before they can be seen.”

Going forward, Bledsoe thinks the individualized customer service retailers need to provide during the days of COVID will continue in spirit once restrictions are lifted.

“What (the pandemic) did was put an old-time feel with just one person at a time in here,” Bledsoe said “And I believe getting five minutes with one of our great budtenders gives you that normalcy that you’re looking for in your day,”

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