WORCESTER – Monday’s the day for many adult-use marijuana stores, as a two-month prohibition on recreational sales due to the coronavirus pandemic ends.
“We’re very excited to get back open again and be able to provide access to adult-use customers again,” said Amanda Rositano, president of New England Treatment Access, a company with co-located medical and adult-use dispensaries in Northampton and Brookline. (The Brookline dispensary will open for recreational sales on Tuesday). “We’re grateful for the governor’s recognition that we can operate safely … in addition, we’re very appreciative of the Cannabis Control Commission’s continued support for opening adult use.”
But dispensaries and cannabis advocates said that the required social distancing and curbside delivery will make for a different experience than the celebratory openings of the past that were marked by big crowds and long lines. And they are asking for a little understanding.
“It’s exciting, it’s great that you can now go to a dispensary again and get a choice of product, but please be patient,” said Peter DeCaro, CEO of Resinate, whose medical dispensary in Worcester received approval to open March 24 just as the pandemic closures began. The company is awaiting approval for its co-located adult-use store to open.
“My advice to everyone is to take this very seriously and to focus on your patient and consumer and employee safety and execute to the best of your ability,” DeCaro added. “It may sound like a no-brainer, but we are still in just the phase 1 of reopening in Massachusetts and we’re hearing reports of potential mutations of COVID. We have a period of time where we need to ensure consumer, patient and employee responsibility to the best of our ability.”
“Our capacity is going to be dramatically, dramatically limited by the COVID environment itself and by the need to operate curbside,” she said. “To ensure everyone’s safety and maintain proper social distancing, and make sure we don’t have crowding … we will be able to serve less customers than we would typically see in a non-COVID environment.”
Gov. Charlie Baker shuttered adult-use marijuana stores in late March as part of an order to close nonessential businesses due to coronavirus.
Medical dispensaries were declared essential businesses and allowed to remain open.
But many cannapreneurs and members of the CCC worried about the nascent industry’s survival, saying recreational sales accounted for 80% of business at co-located recreational and medical dispensaries. Adding to their worries, cannabis businesses are excluded from government relief funds because marijuana remains illegal federally.
The industry rallied together to press their case for reopening.
Many argued that a significant number of recreational consumers used for medical reasons. Other arguments included that other states with recreational marijuana had deemed it essential; that the industry was intended to be regulated like the alcohol industry, which was considered essential; that veterans who were treated through the Veterans Administration could not be prescribed medical marijuana because it remained federally illegal; and that the shutdown would doom the budding industry.
David Torrisi, president of the Commonwealth Dispensary Association, a group representing about 40 members in the cannabis industry, said that the group and others have been lobbying the Baker-Polito administration since the shutdown began in March.
Other industry players tried to go through the courts. Others tried through legislation. Neither of those two efforts were successful.
But what was successful appears to have been a group of industry representatives – including Torrisi, Rositano and others – stating their case for safety to members of the governor’s Reopening Advisory Board, headed by Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito, on May 9.
“When we made the pitch to the Reopening Advisory Board it was about safety, safety, safety,” Torrisi said. “It wasn’t about how much money we lost, customers we weren’t able to serve, or about our bottom line; it was about safety.”
Moreover, advocates were able to point to success. Medical dispensaries had been successfully operating with social-distancing guidelines and curbside pickup options since March.
“The most important point for us to stress as an industry is that we have been operating safely and effectively as an essential service since the beginning of the crisis … as an essential service for medical customers,” Rositano said.
She also noted that unlike in most retail environments, customers do not handle marijuana or marijuana products until the point of sale – there is no “browsing” and touching and picking up and replacing product.
Moreover, the industry already operates under strict health and safety codes. In many ways it’s uniquely suited to operate during a pandemic, those interviewed noted.
When the Reopening Board released its plan, adult-use shops were included with all other retail operations, allowed to open for curbside pickup on May 25. The state declined to comment on the record about the adult-use cannabis industry’s appearance before the board.
But things will look different in a COVID-19 environment.
“It really turns the dispensaries into fulfillment centers rather than brick-and-mortar retailers – it’s a bit of a paradigm shift,” said Curaleaf CEO Joe Lusardi. Curaleaf has a co-located medical and recreational dispensary in Oxford.
The CCC published guidelines on Wednesday to detail what curbside pickup can look like, but it will be slightly different depending on each store.
Some plans are still under discussion as of deadline, but each of the stores whose representatives were interviewed – NETA, Curaleaf and Good Chemistry – are relying primarily on online ordering and notifying customers when their order is ready for pickup.
NETA, for instance, is asking adult-use customers to order online and schedule a specific pickup time.
Lusardi, of Curaleaf, described it like picking up any other kind of legal drug.
“We’ll direct you to our website, do an online transaction, reserve your order, show up and pay for it, and receive the order much like a prescription,” Lusardi said. “We’ll be using an electronic waitlisting system so we can tell someone that their slot to pick up their product is between x and y a time. Hopefully it will really control the flow of customers.”
Good Chemistry, in the Canal District, may have some lines because of a lack of ready nearby parking. But they are reminding customers to practice social distancing and to wear a mask. Again, they are using online ordering for day-of pickup. Ordering begins each day at 9 a.m. and pickups are between 10 a.m. and 9 p.m. Customers will receive a confirmation text message when their order is available.
Those interviewed expect high demand.
“We expect to do a brisk business at all of our stores,” Torrisi said. “Our members are excited … they’ve only been doing curbside to medical patients for a short amount of time, now extending it, so we’re asking for peoples’ patience.”
That could benefit the industry in the future, Torrisi said.
“If we operate safely and our customers are understanding and behave accordingly, we would maybe be allowed to open if – God forbid – there was another shutdown,” Torrisi said. “We’re asking for peoples’ patience. Customers are under the microscope as well as the stores.”