As the world finds itself engrossed in the largest public health crisis of our lifetimes, the Covid-19 pandemic, the novel coronavirus disrupting life for every American and most across the globe, is naturally on the top of everyone’s minds. As difficult as it is to think about the cannabis industry and reform movement at a time like this, the reality is that the coronavirus’ impact on our economy and society is also impacting cannabis, with the effects likely to get significantly worse in the coming weeks and months.
With that in mind, here are some of the ways in which the coronavirus crisis is impacting the cannabis industry, and things that consumers and businesses should keep in mind as we navigate this health crisis together.
Protect Patients First
It should go without saying that medical cannabis patients are the most vulnerable cannabis consumers, and the most at risk of serious complications from Covid-19. Dispensaries must take care to protect their patients, and states must enact emergency regulations designed to help businesses serve patients without compromising their health.
As states force the closure of more and more businesses to enforce social distancing, medical cannabis dispensaries must be treated like other essential businesses such as pharmacies and grocery stores. The lives of thousands of patients literally depend on it. This must also include cultivation and production facilities that produce the medicine that these patients rely upon. Plainly said, cannabis is medicine. The medical movement was not a wink and nod towards adult use. Cannabis was and remains real medicine that patients use to treat real ailments.
Fortunately, many states are already taking these measures, with more expected to follow in the coming days and weeks. Maryland, Michigan, and Illinois regulators have already enacted curbside pickup, while Massachusetts has expanded delivery areas for approved dispensaries and recommended that patients who can afford it, buy their full two week supply of two and a half ounces at a time, rather than making multiple trips.
Dispensaries that are dual use, recreational and medical, should consider taking measures to reduce unnecessary medical patient exposure. If possible, when curbside pickup or delivery is unavailable, medical patients should be served in an entirely separate area of the dispensary from general customers.
These kinds of measures should be implemented even in adult use operations. Businesses should limit the number of customers inside of a dispensary at any time, enforcing social distancing for the health of their staff, customers, and patients. This may mean no more than one or two customers on the dispensary floor or at the counter at a time, shifting all sales to online/phone orders for pickup only, or pre-scheduling customers through an appointment only system. When limiting customers inside of the store, customers outside should be encouraged to stay in their cars while they wait (deli style number systems could help make this more manageable) and a staff member should be posted outside enforcing a six foot distance rule between any customer waiting in line.
It should go without saying, but these businesses also need to improve their sanitary practices. This could include providing gloves for employees, disinfecting sales counters after every transaction, and disinfecting the entire store more than once a day. And of course, any employees who show any signs of illness or who have had direct exposure to someone with Covid-19 should be told to stay home. This may mean having those who check in patients do so with a thermometer in hand, screening out patients with a fever, and bringing them their medicine if possible.
Businesses Need More Flexibility To Survive
To ensure that medical cannabis businesses are able to continue operations as the virus spreads, state governments should relax rules around badging dispensary agents and employees. In most states it takes 30 days from hiring an employee until they have gone through the required background checks and fingerprinting before they can receive an employee badge and be put to work. As more employees are expected to miss time in self-quarantine, self-isolation, and even hospitalization, businesses must be able to onboard new employees quickly to ensure that they are adequately staffed to serve their patients.
Further, dispensary agent cards typically only allow an employee to work for one specific cannabis business, and often at one particular location. At a time when cannabis businesses can expect to lose workers to illness and self isolation, cannabis workers should be allowed to shift between locations, and ideally, from business to business. If one business is forced to shut down, their employees should be able to easily move to another company using their existing agent card. This can help protect employee jobs while assisting remaining business who may become short staffed.
Cannabis Is Essential For Many Non-Patients
More cities, states, and countries are beginning to implement full lock downs, shuttering all retail businesses that are considered non-essential. While some may scoff at the idea of cannabis being considered an essential item, it is worth a serious look at the issue before dismissing it out of hand.
For many cannabis consumers, marijuana is an important tool for de-stressing. Many Americans would argue that access to alcohol during an incredibly stressful time for themselves and the nation is essential to their wellbeing. The same is certainly true for a substance that is non-toxic and does not produce the negative side effects like aggression, domestic violence, and hangovers.
Consumers are telling us this right now as they prepare to hunker down for extended periods of time. Cannabis retailers have reported major increases in sales since last Friday during the same period when there has been a run on essentials like groceries, toilet paper, and cleaning supplies. Many stores across the country, including some run by my own company 4Front, saw sales numbers that eclipsed April 20, typically the busiest cannabis shopping day of the year. Clearly cannabis consumers consider this healing plant to be an essential item in their lives.
This is not without precedent. In cigarette loving France, the government has already shut down all nonessential retail businesses, but one of the exemptions made was for tobacconists, in recognition that taking away an important stress reliever for many people during a time of extreme stress and unrest would be cruel, even during a pandemic that primarily attacks the lungs. Certainly the same can be said for something that has demonstrated to be far less damaging to our health like cannabis.
We’re already seeing this play out here in the United States. In the San Francisco Bay Area, which has instituted a complete area-wide “shelter in place” order, cannabis businesses have already been granted exemptions to stay open, mostly under curbside delivery rules, in San Francisco, Berkeley, Alameda, Oakland, and San Jose.
Further complicating this situation is that many who shop as adult use consumers are actually using cannabis for medical purposes. These customers choose not to become officially registered patients for a variety of reasons, primarily because they don’t want or see the need to spend the time and money going to a doctor and getting a recommendation when cannabis is legal and available for all adults and there is no penalty for personal possession.
This is especially true in low income neighborhoods and communities of color, where patients often can’t afford the $300 or so, not covered by health insurance, that it typically costs to see a doctor and register for a state medical program. More marginalized communities that have traditionally born the brunt of cannabis and drug law enforcement are also often wary of voluntarily registering on a state list of people who use a product that remains federally illegal. Continue Reading: Cannabis