Weed stores are pretty much a normal thing in most of the United States at this point. With more than 75 percent of the country having legalized cannabis to some extent, it’s only natural that we’re beginning to see dispensaries popping up seemingly everywhere. As a matter of fact, a popular headline circulating a few years ago described how Colorado had more pot shops than Starbucks and McDonald’s stores: 491, 392, and 208, respectively.
It’s fun to think about, and it got me wondering what states and cities in the US have the most cannabis dispensaries overall. Let’s take a closer look at the stats.
Cannabis legalization in the states
Although the use and possession of cannabis is still federally prohibited, and cannabis remains a schedule 1 narcotic on the DEA’s list of controlled substances, legal weed at the state level has been around for almost three decades now. As of September 2023, thirty-eight states and Washington, D.C. have legalized medical cannabis, while 23 states, including D.C., have legalized recreational use.
California broke barriers becoming the first state to legalize medical cannabis back in 1996. Lesser known, is that Arizona also passed a medical cannabis ballot measure that same year, but it was rendered ineffective on a technicality that wasn’t fixed until 2010. By the year 2000, seven more states passed medical cannabis measures: Oregon, Alaska, Nevada, Washington, Maine, and Hawaii. From then on, it spread like wildfire and now, 76% of the US offers medical cannabis to their residents.
In 2012, Oregon and Colorado legalized recreational cannabis for adults over the age of 21, another first for the United States. They are now the first states to make major strides in psychedelic drug reform as well. Again, numerous states began to follow suit with weed legalization. Minnesota is the most recent state to go green, with a bill signed into law on May 30 of this year, going into effect on August 1st.
Most dispensaries per capita
So, since most of the US is “legal”, what are the nation’s most saturated markets? It’s hard to say, as different sources provide slightly different figures on where to find the most dispensaries. But it seems the few states that consistently come up in the top five are Oregon, Oklahoma, Colorado, Montana, and Alaska. A report published in 2020 claims that Oregon has about 16.5 dispensaries per 100,000 residents, followed by Oklahoma at 15.6, and Montana at 15.1.
Per the report, Colorado (14.1), Alaska (12.7), Washington (6.2), New Mexico (5.2), Nevada (2.4), Michigan (1.7) and California (1.6) round out the top 10. When it comes to cities with the most dispensaries, we have Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, in the top spot with 48.7 dispensaries per 100,000 residents. Then Missoula, Montana (36.2), Medford, Oregon (34), Pueblo, Colorado (33.2), Eugene, Oregon (32.2) and Denver, Colorado (29.8).
A recent article I found says that Oklahoma has moved to the top spot, surpassing Oregon, but I couldn’t find any numbers or data to support this claim. Another article I read says that “Among states with legalized medical cannabis, Oklahoma had the largest number of dispensary licenses as of summer of 2021,” which makes more sense when comparing it only to states with medical, as opposed to lumping it in with adult-use states.
One thing that none of these stats takes into account are illegal states that sell “alternative” cannabinoid flowers. While these products are marketed as hemp, and the stores are presented as smoke shops, head shops, and apothecaries, we know that it is often just regular pot being sold in what feels like a dispensary, thanks to the THCA loophole. It’s impossible to say how many of these stores exist.
At glance, it seems like there are a decent number of dispensaries in the US… and there are. Once more, I found it difficult to find specifics, but the most recent data from 2020 states that there are 7,490 dispensaries total, and it’s safe to estimate that number is substantially higher now since quite a few more states have legalized.
So, we have a decent number of pot shops and delivery services, but the problem is that most of them are concentrated in just a few select areas. This can be due to several different factors including local zoning regulations, city or county tax rates, conservative pushback in some areas, and the list goes on.
For example, you would think a state like California is just littered with dispensaries, but that’s not really the case. The golden state only has about 1,400 dispensaries for their almost 40 million residents. That only works out to 36.7 dispensaries per million people. And they’re not as accessible as one would think. When I lived in the high desert, there was not a single dispensary out there. I had to drive at least 1 hour away to the Coachella Valley, a region that has a pretty high density of pot shops for how small it is – a total of 76 dispensaries for their total population of about 370,000, in an area that spans only 45 miles.
It’s comparable to food deserts in a sense, which are defined as “areas that have limited access to affordable and nutritious food,” – be that grocery stores, farmers markets, and so on. Although food is arguably more important than pot, some people do need cannabis to maintain a reasonable and functional quality of life, and having no options to buy it legally does nothing but bolster illicit markets.
It’s wonderful that we live in a time when we can walk into a store and buy some pot, or have it delivered straight to our homes. Although numbers are all over the place, it does give us a better idea for what cities and states are the most weed-friendly. Regardless, one key takeaway here is that despite how many dispensaries we do have, there are quite a few steps to take in order to make cannabis more accessible for everyone who needs it.
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