DENVER — At Ace’s High Spirits in Denver’s Northfield neighborhood, investor Paul Villella and owner Stephanie Cloven feel fortunate to be in liquor sales at a time of so much uncertainty.
“It’s a growing neighborhood, and we feel like we’ve been growing right along with it,” Villella said. “We’re lucky, being in this industry, and we’ve got a lot of great sales reps. It’s one of the few businesses that is somewhat recession-proof.”
While many restaurants and bars fell hard during the pandemic, liquor stores and pot shops soared.
“Ace’s was an increase year-over-year of about 30-35%,” Villella said.
“We saw about 20-30% growth over the COVID pandemic,” said Jamie Perino, owner of Elements Dispensary in Boulder.
Perino says the pandemic had a net positive effect on them.
“It kind of helped legitimize our industry and that we are essential, and people do need us for medicine,” Perino said. “As time wore on and people were at home more, starting to have sleeping issues, anxiety – they started to turn to marijuana to help alleviate some of that.”
While alcohol and marijuana can be mostly harmless when used responsibly, increased abuse during COVID-19 also magnified a dangerous mental health issue.
“The ways most people handle stress, which is either going to the gym, going out, hanging out with friends, all that was taken away,” said Dr. Anat Geva at HealthONE’s Behavioral Health & Wellness Center. “And the one thing that people do know how to use remains open: the pot shops, the liquor stores.”
Time away from family and work, isolation and boredom created a perfect storm.
“And they turn to drinking as a way of self-medicating or kind of coping with this time,” Geva said.
“How many people were in recovery and lost their job during this time and went back to drinking?” said Dr. Patrick Fehling, addiction psychiatrist at UCHealth’s Center for Dependency, Addiction and Rehabilitation or CeDAR.
Geva says it’s easy for people to turn to drugs and alcohol when they are depressed, anxious or stressed.
“It’s much more accessible to go to the liquor store or the pot shop,” Geva said. “The honest truth is it’s also cheaper. So, if you think of a therapy session versus a bottle of whatever it is, that’s cheaper, right?”
Geva said it’s also socially acceptable.
“Whereas, for some people, going and getting mental health support, it is stigmatized,” she said. “It makes them feel weak. It makes them feel wrong — they’re not handling it well.”
“Alcoholism is a very deceptive and a very secret condition,” Fehling said. “How many more people are drinking alone, drinking in isolation, drinking secretly?”
And it’s not just alcohol.
“There’s been about a 30% surge in opioid overdoses from September 2019 to September of 2020,” Fehling said. “We know that detachment and isolation from others plays a role.”
That was certainly the case for some, like Fred, as we gauged public opinion.
“Maybe a little more alcohol,” said Fred, who didn’t share his last name. “You’re sitting at home and you’re just kind of, nothing to do. So, you know, go to the liquor store, come back home, watch some Netflix.”
Many increased their use of liquor, pot or both.
“I probably bought more,” Nicole said. “I’ll do the pen, I’ll do dabs and then I’ll smoke the grass. If I smoke, it just helps me calm down.”
And yet others, like Mike, used the pandemic as an opportunity to cut back.
“Me and my friends were already drinking and smoking a lot before COVID,” Mike said. “So we used it as the opposite — to take a little break and get away. I mean, I’m riding my bike out here, cruising around. I’m definitely more active.”
Ashton said COVID-19 helped her stay sober. She quit drinking before the pandemic started.
“I stopped drinking for personal reasons,” she said. “Through COVID, I was home, so it was easy to keep not drinking. And it’s not like I was tempted going out with friends or anything like that. It was really easy to avoid alcohol, if you were looking to avoid it, during quarantine. You just didn’t go to liquor stores.”
Unfortunately, not all fared so well.
Fehling said COVID-19-related stressors put many at higher risk.
“Lost jobs, financial hardship, death in the family, social isolation,” Fehling said.
Fehling says it's important to watch for signs with loved ones. He said it’s a spectrum disease: it can be mild, moderate or severe. Fehling said a high predictor of growing or developing an addiction is often history of another addiction.
“These conditions can grow if nobody intervenes in any fashion.”
That’s the key, according to Geva: thoughtful and delicate intervention.
“Relating to friends and family rather than telling them to stop,” Geva said. “Just saying like, ‘Hey, I’ve noticed that you’ve been struggling lately with such-and-such.’”
“A curious, an open-minded and non-confrontational listening approach,” Fehling said.
“What’s going on for you?” Geva said. “Hitting the underlying problems and not shaming the person for the behavior that is problematic.”
Geva said it’s not really the responsibility of liquor stores and pot shops, although both Villella and Perino said they put themselves out there sometimes.
“It’s not necessarily our place to step in,” Perino said. “But we do have resources that we do like to offer to people.”
“That was something we had to really think about early on when we got into this industry,” Fehling said. “Over time in these neighborhood stores, you become pretty good friends with people, and there are people that we’ve literally had to say, ‘We’re not going to serve you anymore,’ because it becomes a danger.”
Bottom line, most experts agree, hitting up the local dispensary or liquor store on occasion is fine, but going too often could have damaging consequences.
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