Never has it been more clear than during the current COVID-19 pandemic that marijuana has arrived at the forefront of mainstream American society.
In state after state, governors and public health officials are deeming cannabis businesses “essential” operations that can stay open amid coronavirus-related forced closures and stay-at-home mandates. People might not be able to go bowling or see a movie in theaters, but they can still stock up on marijuana.
It wasn’t long ago that anyone growing and selling marijuana faced the risk of being arrested, prosecuted and jailed. But now, in the era of expanding legalization, cannabis providers in many states are held up as vital members of the community who are providing a valuable service on par with picking up prescription drugs at a pharmacy or filling up your car at a gas station.
Advocacy groups have pushed governors and state officials to ensure that medical marijuana patients in particular can maintain access to the cannabis they need. But because many people who use marijuana for therapeutic purposes don’t necessarily jump through the hoops needed in order to become officially certified as patients, recreational businesses are also seen as crucial access points that need to stay open.
“Most of the American public and an increasing number of government leaders stopped buying into the demonization of cannabis years ago,” Karen O’Keefe, state policies director for the Marijuana Policy Project, said. “Now, not only have two-thirds of states recognized that medical cannabis should be legal—with 11 legalizing adult-use—many are recognizing that safe access to cannabis is essential.”
NORML Executive Director Erik Altieri said it is “encouraging to see our nation’s public policy in practice is finally catching up to where the vast majority of Americans have been for years.”
“The recognition by our government officials that cannabis is indeed not just here to stay, but an essential part of life for millions of Americans—particularly in the patient community—is a welcome move in the right direction,” he said. “It is also a move that could not have come at a better moment for those who still require access to maintain quality of life during these trying and troubled times.”
In some states, officials have enacted new temporary policies such as expanded delivery services or curbside pickup that make it easier for consumers to get their hands on marijuana while respecting social distancing measures. Others are allowing doctors to issue medical cannabis recommendations via telemedicine instead of requiring that they conduct in-person examinations.
Here’s a look at how states that are taking steps to maintain legal marijuana access during the COVID-19 outbreak:
Regulators deemed cannabis retail outlets to be essential businesses that can stay open amid a broader stay-at-home order. Localities, including Los Angeles County and San Francisco, have also said that certain cannabis businesses are essential providers that can continue operations.
Gov. Jared Polis (D) issued an executive order allowing marijuana businesses to provide curbside pickup services and letting doctors issue medical cannabis recommendations via telemedicine without in-person examinations. A subsequent order from the governor says that marijuana businesses are critical retail operations, but only for the sale of medical cannabis or curbside delivery. Regulators also issued emergency rules temporarily loosening requirements for fingerprinting of marijuana business owners, modification of premises and transfer of cannabis product samples for testing.
Regulators deemed medical cannabis businesses to be essential and thus exempt from a general mandate to suspend in-person operations.
The state surgeon general issued an order allowing physicians to issue medical cannabis recertifications to existing patients—but not new ones—via telemedicine.
Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s (D) stay-at-home order declares marijuana dispensaries and cultivation facilities to be essential businesses that can stay open. Dispensaries are also being allowed to do curbside sales of medical cannabis—but not recreational marijuana—products.
Medical cannabis growers, processors and dispensaries. are exempt from an order Gov. Larry Hogan (R) issued to close non-essential businesses. Regulators are also allowing dispensaries to deliver medical marijuana to patients in parking lots.
Gov. Charlie Baker (R) issued a stay-at-home order deeming medical cannabis businesses—but not recreational marijuana ones—to be essential and exempt from a general shutdown. Regulators also encouraged medical cannabis delivery services to promote and expand their offerings, and are allowing doctors to remotely recommend marijuana to patients through the use of telehealth waivers.
Marijuana businesses will be able to continue curbside sales and home deliveries but cannot perform in-person transactions in stores under a stay-at-home order issued by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D). Regulators previously sent a bulletin allowing curbside pickup and encouraging delivery services, and another bulletin extending the period of prequalification status for marijuana business license applicants that may experience building delays.
Regulators are allowing medical cannabis patients to do curbside pickup at dispensaries and are letting doctors issue recommendations via telemedicine.
Gov. Phil Murphy (D) exempted medical cannabis dispensaries from a stay-at-home order. Regulators moved to allow patients pick up medical marijuana at dispensaries’ curbsides and to reduce caregiver registration fees.
Regulators ruled that medical cannabis businesses are essential and can stay open. They also allowed curbside pickup services, extended expiring patient and caregiver cards for 90 days and suspended background checks for new industry employees.
The state Department of Health deemed that medical cannabis providers are essential businesses not subject to a general closure order. Those that are authorized to carry out home delivery are temporarily allowed to expand those services without written approval.
Gov. Mike DeWine’s (R) stay-at-home order exempts medical cannabis businesses from a broader business shutdown. The State Medical Board also moved to allow doctors to issue medical cannabis recommendations via telemedicine without meeting patients in person. Additionally, regulators are letting patients phone in orders ahead of their arrival at dispensaries to reduce time spent inside.
Regulators approved rules to allow curbside delivery of marijuana at licensed retail locations and to increase medical cannabis sales limits. They also moved to make it easier to obtain cannabis worker permits.
Regulators deemed medical cannabis providers as “life-sustaining” operations that are exempt from Gov. Tom Wolf’s (D) order to close businesses in general. They also took other steps, including allowing patients to have marijuana brought to their cars outside of dispensaries and letting caregivers make deliveries to an unlimited number of patients.
Gov. Jay Inslee’s (D) stay-at-home order exempts marijuana businesses as essential, allowing them to stay open. And regulators are allowing marijuana dispensaries to carry out curbside service for medical cannabis patients.
Despite the significant number of states deeming cannabis businesses to be essential and issuing rulings temporarily expanding their services, that is not the case in every legal marijuana market.
And despite the accommodations, many regulators are also directing businesses to implement social distancing measures such as limits on the number of customers who can enter a retail operation at a given time or guidance on physical space between those who are standing in line—changes that can slow down operations and reduce revenue.
Still, many industry leaders seems to understand the public health necessity of such moves, and cannabis law firm Vicente Sederberg LLP, for example, issued a set of suggested voluntary guidelines for marijuana businesses to consider.
For now, industry trackers have indicated that sales are strong as consumers stock up in preparation to hunker down at home for several weeks.
Nonetheless, the industry has called on Congress to give it equal access to disaster relief funds—a request necessitated by the fact that ongoing federal prohibition means that their operations are still illegal and not generally eligible for such aid.
Legalization opponents, meanwhile, are not pleased with moves by a growing number of states to keep cannabis stores in business despite the steps intended to foster social distancing at such locations.
“We have seen numerous reports of marijuana stores with long lines of people stocking up on the drug and have additionally seen states move to keep these stores open,” Kevin Sabet, president of prohibitionist organization Smart Approaches to Marijuana, said. “Quite frankly, this presents a unique harm to public health and safety. Across the country, states are doing everything in their power to limit the gathering of people in one location. Long lines outside of establishments engaged in the distribution of marijuana should be a tremendous cause for concern.”
When it comes to consumers, while advocates have cautioned them to consider refraining from smoking or vaping for the time being due to the risk of agitating lungs amid the respiratory effects of the novel coronavirus, they have also pointed out that there are other ways to use cannabis, such as edibles.
For now, the coronavirus pandemic has further highlighted the disconnect between federal and state policies: Under one set of laws cannabis is a banned drug, and under the other it’s a medicine deemed just as essential as any other.
(Marijuana Moment’s editor provides some content to Forbes via a temporary exclusive publishing license arrangement.)
Photo courtesy of Carlos Gracia.
Missouri Launches Medical Marijuana Sales At State’s First Dispensaries
Less than two years after Missouri voters approved a ballot measure to legalize medical marijuana, dispensaries made the state’s first cannabis sales to patients on Saturday.
N’Bliss Cannabis opened the doors of two separate St. Louis County locations, in Ellisville and Manchester.
I was honored to watch Larry, a cancer survivor, and his wife Sue, an RN, make the state’s first legal medical cannabis purchase this morning in St Louis. @mocanntrade @NewApproachMO pic.twitter.com/rCudrkdbfI
— Jack Cardetti (@jackcardetti) October 17, 2020
“Missouri patients have always been our north star as we work to implement the state’s medical marijuana program,” Dr. Randall Williams, director of the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services, said in a press release. “We greatly appreciate how hard everyone has worked so that patients can begin accessing a safe and well-regulated program.”
Officials have touted the speed with which they have gotten the voter-approved cannabis program off the ground, saying it is “one of the fastest implementations of a medical marijuana program in the United States.”
“A tremendous amount of work has occurred by the licensed facilities and our team to get us to this point, and we continue to hear from more facilities that they are ready or almost ready for their commencement inspection,” Lyndall Fraker, director of the Section for Medical Marijuana Regulation, said in a press release. “We look forward to seeing these facilities open their doors to serve patients and caregivers.”
— Mo Health & Sr Srvcs (@HealthyLivingMo) October 17, 2020
The impending launch of sales on Saturday was first announced by the Missouri Medical Cannabis Trade Association on Friday and reported by The Springfield News-Leader.
The wait is finally over! Tomorrow morning at 9am @NBlissCannabis will open the doors to their Ellisville and Manchester locations for the first medical marijuana sales in Missouri! Congrats to the whole N'Bliss team! The #MOMMJ industry is up and running! pic.twitter.com/wyZIcoyLBv
— MoCannTrade (@mocanntrade) October 16, 2020
The state, which has so far licensed 192 dispensaries and expects most of them to open their doors by the end of the year, posted an interactive map that tracks the status of approved medical marijuana businesses.
For months, regulators have been caught up in lawsuits and appeals challenging their licensing decisions, with revenues that would otherwise go to supporting veteran services instead being allocated to covering legal costs.
Missouri isn’t the only state to see medical cannabis sales launch this weekend. Virginia’s first medical marijuana dispensary also held its grand opening on Saturday.
Meanwhile, recreational sales of marijuana rolled out in Maine last week—four years after voters there approved a legalization ballot measure.
Illinois Continues Record-Breaking Marijuana Sales Streak, New State Data For September Shows
For the fifth month in a row, Illinois is again reporting record-breaking marijuana sales, the state Department of Financial and Professional Regulation announced on Monday.
Despite the coronavirus pandemic, Illinois has seen escalating cannabis sales month-over-month. In September, consumers purchased more than 1.4 million marijuana products worth a total of nearly $67 million. Almost $18 million of those sales came from out-of-state visitors.
In August, the total sales reached about $64 million—the previous monthly record. The new adult-use sales figures don’t include data about purchases made through the state’s medical cannabis program.
This latest data seems to support the notion that the state’s marijuana market is “recession-proof” and “pandemic-proof,” as a top regulator said in August.
State officials have emphasized that while the strong sales trend is positive economic news, they’re primarily interested in using tax revenue to reinvest in communities most impacted by the drug war. Illinois brought in $52 million in cannabis tax revenue in the first six months since retail sales started in January, the state announced in July, 25 percent of which will go toward a social equity program.
“We were not doing this to make as much money as fast as we possibly could,” Toi Hutchinson, senior cannabis advisor to Gov. J.B Pritzker (D), said. “We were actually doing this for people,” with a focus on supporting communities most impacted by the drug war.
In May, the state also announced that it was making available $31.5 million in restorative justice grants funded by marijuana tax revenue.
That said, ensuring an equitable market as promised hasn’t been easy. Regulators have recently faced lawsuits after dozens of would-be social equity licensees were denied an opportunity to participate in a licensing lottery over alleged problems with their applications. The state said it would approve 75, but only 21 ultimately qualified—and critics complain that the resources it takes to submit an acceptable application creates barriers for the exact people the special licenses are supposed to help.
The governor announced last month that new procedures would be implemented allowing rejected applicants to submit corrected forms. But on Monday, three investors who are finalists from the initial round filed a lawsuit against the state, alleging that the administration’s decision to permit resubmissions was politically motivated and illegal.
For now, the out-of-state sales data seems to support Pritzker’s prediction during his State of the State address in January that cannabis tourism would bolster the state’s coffers.
Prior to implementation, the pardoned more than 11,000 people with prior marijuana convictions.
Over in Oregon, officials have been witnessing a similar sales trend amid the global health crisis. Data released in August reveals that the state saw about $106 million in medical and recreational cannabis sales, marking the third month in a row that sales exceeded $100 million.
California Governor Approves Changes To Marijuana Banking And Labeling Laws
California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) signed a handful of marijuana bills into law on Tuesday, making a series of small adjustments to the nation’s largest legal cannabis system. More sweeping proposals such as overhauling the state’s marijuana regulatory structure will have to wait until next year, the governor said.
Among the biggest of the new changes are revisions to banking and advertising laws. With many legal marijuana businesses are still unable to access financial services, Newsom signed a bill (AB 1525) to remove state penalties against banks that work with cannabis clients.
“This bill has the potential to increase the provisions of financial services to the legal cannabis industry,” Newsom wrote in a signing statement, “and for that reason, I support it.”
Democrats in Congress, meanwhile, have been working for months to remove obstacles to these businesses’ access to financial services at the federal level. A coronavirus relief bill released by House Democratic leaders on Monday is the latest piece of legislation to include marijuana banking protections. Past efforts to include such provisions have been scuttled by Senate Republicans.
In his signing statement on the banking bill, Newsom directed state cannabis regulators to establish rules meant to protect the privacy of marijuana businesses that seek financial services, urging that data be kept confidential and is used only “for the provision of financial services to support licensees.”
Another bill (SB 67) the governor signed on Tuesday will finally establish a cannabis appellation program, meant to indicate where marijuana is grown and how that might influence its character. The system is similar to how wine regions are regulated.
Under the new law, growers and processors under the new law will be forbidden from using the name of a city or other designated region in product marketing unless all of that product’s cannabis is grown in that region. Similar protections already apply at the county level.
For outdoor growers, the new law recognizes the importance of terrior—the unique combination of soil, sun and other environmental factors that can influence the character of a cannabis plant. For indoor growers, it provides a way to represent a hometown or cash in on regional cachet.
Most of the other new changes that the governor signed into law are relatively minor and will likely go unnoticed by consumers. One, for example, builds in more wiggle room on the amount of THC in edibles (AB 1458), while another would allow state-licensed cannabis testing labs to provide services to law enforcement (SB 1244).
The bills were approved by state lawmakers earlier this month, as the state’s legislative session drew to a close.
Other pieces of cannabis legislation passed by the legislature this session were met with the governor’s veto. On Tuesday, Newsom rejected a proposal (AB 1470) that would have allowed processors to submit unpackaged products to testing labs, which industry lobbyists said would reduce costs. Currently products must be submitted in their final form, complete with retail packaging. Newsom said the proposal “conflicts with current regulations…that prevent contaminated and unsafe products from entering the retail market.”
“While I support reducing packaging waste, allowing products to be tested not in their final form could result in consumer harm and have a disproportionate impact on small operators,” Newsom said in a veto statement.
Those changes to testing procedures should instead be considered next year, Newsom said, as part of a pending plan to streamline California’s cannabis licensing and regulatory agencies.
“I have directed my administration to consolidate the state regulatory agencies that currently enforce cannabis health and safety standards to pursue all appropriate measures to ease costs and reduce unnecessary packaging,” he wrote. “This proposal should be considered as part of that process.”
Newsom also last week vetoed a bill (AB 545) that would have begun to dissolve the state Bureau of Cannabis Control, which oversees the legal industry. In a statement, the governor called that legislation “premature” given his plans for broader reform.
“My Administration has proposed consolidating the regulatory authority currently divided between three state entities into one single department,” Newsom wrote, “which we hope to achieve next year in partnership with the Legislature.”
Earlier this month, the governor signed into law one of the industry’s top priorities for the year—a measure (AB 1872) that freezes state cannabis cultivation and excise taxes for the entirety of 2021. The law is intended to provide financial stability for cannabis businesses in California, where taxes on marijuana are among the highest in the nation.
The state’s leading marijuana trade group, the California Cannabis Industry Association (CCIA), applauded the governor’s moves. All the bills approved by Newsom this week had the industry group’s support.
“We thank Governor Newsom for prioritizing these bills, which seek to reduce regulatory burdens, improve enforcement, expand financial services and enhance the state’s cannabis appellation’s program,” CCIA Executive Director Lindsay Robinson said in a message to supporters on Wednesday. “Like so many, the cannabis industry has faced a series of unexpected challenges and setbacks in 2020. We look forward to continuing to work with the Newsom Administration, and the Legislature, as we pursue a robust policy agenda in 2021.”
Image element courtesy of Gage Skidmore