Marijuana businesses and advocates are urging Governor Charlie Baker and state legislators to declare recreational marijuana shops “essential,” allowing them to remain open during the coronavirus pandemic.
Earlier this week, Governor Charlie Baker ordered all non-essential businesses to close or operate remotely. Liquor stores and medical marijuana dispensaries were deemed essential, while adult-use recreational marijuana facilities were not.
Amanda Rositano, the president of New England Treatment Access (NETA) in Brookline Village, says limiting sales to only medical product has caused an 80% drop in customer traffic at the dispensary, which has significantly affected sales and revenue.
“Access on the adult-use side is incredibly important,” Rositano said. “Folks who need relief, who can’t register with the state’s medical program, we just think it’s really important that those folks not be left out of the equation.”
Rositano says NETA estimates that roughly two-thirds of their adult-use recreational customers purchase cannabis for symptom relief though they are not registered as medical marijuana patients.
“Package stores are considered an essential service,” Rositano said. “People need all sorts of relief during this time. We’re just asking to be treated to be treated fairly here.”
In a letter responding to Monday’s emergency order, ten state representatives along with state senators Nick Collins and Sonia Chang-Diaz asked Baker to consider recreational marijuana an “essential service” along with grocery stores, pharmacies and liquor stores.
“Regulations were put in place to treat this newly legalized product similar to alcoholic beverages,” they wrote. “We have a responsibility to ensure that this equity is upheld during these unprecedented times.”
Commonwealth Dispensary Association president David Torrisi said in a statement, “These businesses provide therapeutic value to thousands of Massachusetts residents as well as vital revenue from taxes that will be more critical than ever in relief efforts.”
On Wednesday, the Veterans Cannabis Project launched a website for veterans in Massachusetts to email Baker and state lawmakers to request that recreational marijuana be made available during the shutdown. “Our nation’s heroes deserve full access to the legal marijuana treatment options they rely on for medical care,” a statement on the website’s home page reads. “Denying access for veterans, including those who are disabled and are regularly prohibited from obtaining medical marijuana cards, is unnecessarily prohibitive for vets who depend on cannabis to help cope with physical and psychological injuries sustained on the battlefield.”
At a news conference earlier this week, Baker said he was closing recreational marijuana sites in part to keep people from traveling to Massachusetts.
“Medical marijuana dispensaries are open, they’re treated for all intents and purposes the same way that we treat health care operations for purposes of this,” Baker said. “Recreational dispensaries are not. And the main reason for that is because Massachusetts is one of the few states in a big geographical area that has available recreational marijuana and a ton of traffic associated with that coming from other states, we felt that in particular would need to be closed and would not be considered essential as part of this order.”
While businesses fight to keep revenue coming in amid the pandemic, many are also fighting to keep their employees working.
Rositano says NETA, which employs about 750 people, the most out of any marijuana business across the state, has done “everything in our power to date to preserve jobs for our employees.”
On a smaller scale, Boston’s first recreational marijuana dispensary, Pure Oasis in Dorchester — which opened for business March 9 —
is fighting to maintain a regular schedule for its 30 employees.
“We’re trying to create a safe environment where our employees aren’t potentially exposed to the virus,” owner Kobie Evans said. “Second to that, we do pay for unemployment insurance, so that’s our fallback position. We’re just trying to get open and provide jobs in a safe environment for people.”
Evans says he saw a rush of customers “stocking up” on marijuana during the first week of business, but sales have dipped since the statewide limitation on recreational products.
“There is a glaring inconsistency between the way that recreational cannabis is being treated and alcohol is being treated,” Evans said. “You could still go to a liquor store and buy alcohol, but there are people with all sorts of undiagnosed medical issues who can’t come to a recreational shop.”
Evans says he regularly hears from customers who are frustrated with the restriction on adult-use products.
“They’re frustrated that [adult-use] is closed because it promotes the black market,” Evans said, “or they’re frustrated that we’re closed at all, because it’s such a glaring inconsistency.”
For other marijuana business owners in the application process, the pandemic has caused a freeze in their application process.
Chauncy Spencer, who hopes to open a recreational marijuana shop called ‘The 420’ in Mattapan, says he has been waiting for more than two months for a letter of support from his city councilor, Ricardo Arroyo, to complete his application to the state.
“I can only assume that they are working hard to ensure that the city is fully functioning and that the citizens are protected and informed and whatnot,” Spencer said. “City Hall is also shut down, so it’s impossible for me to pop in and knock on doors and talk to City Council members about my establishment.”
Arroyo did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Spencer says he’s been struggling to pay rent on both his home and the future location for The 420, an old Payless shoe store on Blue Hill Ave.
“The situation does put a pause on my application, and while that’s still going on, my landlord needs to get paid,” he said. “And I’m not in a position to do that right now.”
To make ends meet, Spencer says he drives Lyft while wearing a medical-grade respirator and goggles. “I park right outside the hospitals in Longwood, and I drive hospital workers home,” Spencer said. “I figure I can do a service to the effort while continuing to make money.”
Spencer, a longtime advocate for equity in the state’s marijuana industry, says he hopes the pause in the process might result in some major change for shops like his.
“It allows for the opportunity for us to have a statewide discussion about what the industry is going to look like going forward,” Spencer said. “Now we have a moment to pause and talk about equity.”