American cities are suddenly darkened and quiet, with shuttered restaurants and cafes—and bars, theaters and arenas stripped of their patrons, their staffs, their purposes.
These extreme measures are of course necessary as governments attempt to slow the spread of the COVID-19 virus, but as more communities consider similar shelter-in-place provisions to those being weighed from New York City to San Francisco, we must discuss the future of the American cannabis dispensary amid this pandemic.
And so access to cannabis must be guaranteed in the upcoming weeks and months as the unknowns of this pandemic continue to reveal themselves.
Because marijuana remains federally illegal, the U.S. cannabis industry relies on a patchwork of state laws that differ wildly from California to Colorado to Connecticut—and we’re already seeing a variety of regulatory responses in the face of the novel coronavirus outbreak.
Pennsylvania’s Department of Public Health says the state’s medical marijuana dispensaries are classified similarly to pharmacies, “which makes them essential,” a representative told The Philadelphia Inquirer this week.
A number of Colorado mountain towns have been hit hard, including snowsports-tourism hotspots in Eagle, Gunnison and Summit counties. The latter made the call this week to protect its marijuana dispensaries from mandated closure even as officials moved to shutter restaurants, hotels and short-term rentals in a region famous for Vail, Crested Butte, Breckenridge, Copper Mountain, Keystone and other popular state ski resorts, all of which have been closed.
Meanwhile, San Francisco officials shuttered the city’s dispensaries with little warning on Tuesday, raising “the issue of access for medical patients,” a dispensary spokesperson said, later pointing out that “many of our guests with true medical needs have not bothered to get medical cards over the last couple of years, since recreational use became legal.” San Francisco’s Department of Health overturned the controversial move later that day, defining dispensaries as “essential businesses.”
Marijuana dispensaries must be considered essential—not only for patients buying in medical dispensaries, but also for consumers purchasing on the adult-use side, many of whom consume cannabis to treat various medical conditions.
Like so many other issues communities now face, maintaining access to legal cannabis will venture far beyond hand-sanitizing stations—especially considering the need for social distancing, disinfecting high-touch surfaces and protecting those with compromised immune systems.
But access to medicine cannot be denied to patients, and already we’re seeing emergency measures and innovative thinking from some governments that will ensure patients have what they need until things return to normal.
Emerging markets are not letting the pandemic interfere with their rulemaking and rollouts, as Missouri’s Department of Health and Senior Services is not anticipating any coronavirus-related delays for the state’s first medical dispensary openings, which are expected this summer.
Florida is now allowing telemedicine consultations for current patients who need to renew their registration status.
Regulators in Illinois and Michigan temporarily approved curbside cannabis pickup at dispensaries statewide, and Michigan’s Marijuana Regulatory Agency is also fast-tracking delivery service licensing for all dispensaries that aren’t already licensed to deliver cannabis.
Massachusetts marijuana regulators also issued guidance this week telling dispensaries they can expand their delivery areas, promote their delivery services and remind patients that they can acquire a 60-day marijuana supply.
These moves allowing curbside pickup and expanding delivery programs might seem minor, but they’re actually substantial, especially considering the usual pace of regulatory change in any state government. Just consider that my home state of Colorado was famously the first in the world to implement adult-use cannabis sales back in January 2014; even though the state legislature passed a limited cannabis delivery program in May 2019, retail dispensaries cannot even apply for the program until January 2021, a full seven years after recreational sales began—and the first medical-only dispensary to attain a Colorado delivery license did so earlier this week in Boulder.
We are seeing some governments absorb cannabis dispensaries into their essential services, and we are seeing others embrace innovation and act quickly to ensure our most vulnerable populations are protected as they purchase and pick up their marijuana.
Now we need other government leaders to step up and keep regulatory pathways open for patients, as this is an urgent priority for care as we enter this next phase of the pandemic.
Ricardo Baca is a veteran journalist, two-time TEDx veteran, and chief executive officer at Denver-based communications agency Grasslands.