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Column

EYE ON ILLINOIS: Pot sales keep climbing while gambling market collapses during pandemic

There aren’t a ton of bright spots in the state’s economic profile these days, but month-by-month, the legal marijuana market continues to explode.

The Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation on Monday released sales figures for adult-use marijuana through September. The department tracks four categories: Items sold, sales to Illinoisans, sales to visitors and total sales. Items sold has been climbing since March, in-state and total sales have grown steadily since February.

Out-of-state sales dipped considerably from March to April, coinciding with rapid expansion of the coronavirus outbreak, but have increased every month since. August and September each doubled January in this category. That was the first month the product was legal in Illinois, and visiting customers spent $8,636,208.61. In August that figure was more than $17.2 million, and last month it exceeded $17.8 million.

September’s sales pushed the year-to-date total for visitors to $108,047,002.52. That’s roughly 25% of the total, which is $431,748,967.45. Through nine months, the daily average is 34,577 items sold for $1.575 million. Even if the growth trend doesn’t continue, by raw sales figures alone, this has been a substantial economic boost.

However, those gains aren’t enough to offset losses in a different “sin tax” report. Also on Monday, the Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability revealed some discouraging, though not unexpected, numbers about the state’s gambling industry. Looking at fiscal 2020, which ended June 30, CoGFA reported total state tax revenues were down about $200 million from 2019 – roughly 13.4 percent.

The report put most of the blame for the drop-off on the pandemic, given casinos and video parlors essentially were shut down from March 16 through June 30. That timeline also nearly eradicated an expected boon from legalized sports betting – the state made all of $12,224 on just a few bets placed before lockdown began.

Even the lottery wasn’t immune, as ticket sales were down almost 6%, falling off $172.5 million for the entire fiscal year. CoGFA smartly pointed out the likely COVID-19 implications – closed retailers, players staying home or having less disposable income – but did say sales still have grown 4.8% over the last six fiscal years. That’s not the type of growth optimists expected from the harebrained privatization scheme, but it still seems safe to say if anything will rebound it’ll be the lottery.

The future is far less bright for racetracks and casinos, as both have consistently trended downward, the latter arguably being cannibalized by the video machines jammed into spare corners of bars, restaurants, bowling alleys, gas stations and strip malls throughout the state.

Revenue and taxes alone aren’t the only way to gauge these industries, but they’ll be key factors in future budget discussions.

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

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