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BELLEVILLE — Thousands of retail stores and other businesses have shuttered across Illinois under Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s “stay-at-home” order, which was issued on Friday. But there is one notable exception: Marijuana dispensaries are open to both medical and recreational customers.

Medical cannabis facilities are classified as essential health care and public health operations under Pritzker’s order. While other businesses have seen steep drops in customers, sales at cannabis dispensaries remain solid.  

“We can keep our doors open, and we’ve seen an uptick,” said Michael Perlman, executive vice president of investor relations and treasurer at Jushi Holdings. “More folks are coming in, so our stores are performing quite well.”

Jushi is a multi-state dispensary operator that owns the Green Solution dispensaries in Sauget and Normal. 

The stay-at-home order from Pritzker may even have driven more customers to dispensaries before the lockdown started.

“Last week we saw a spike in sales right before ‘shelter in place’ was put into place,” said Sammy Dorf, chief growth officer at Verano Holdings, LLC. “Since then, we’ve seen things steady out a little bit.” 

Verano operates two dispensaries in the state: Zen Leaf St. Charles, near Chicago, and the Clinic Effingham. 

The coronavirus outbreak has changed how many dispensaries operate. Gone are the days of long, densely packed lines in and outside of dispensaries. Lines still exist — people are just spaced out at least six feet away from each other.

The Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation issued guidance for how dispensaries can and should operate amid COVID-19. Dispensaries can sell marijuana to medical patients outside of their physical establishments in a style similar to curbside pickup methods that restaurants are employing. 

In practice, this looks like ordering online or calling ahead, then picking up the order at the dispensary. Verano has implemented online ordering for medical patients, Dorf said.

“It’s working out extremely well so far,” he said. “This lessens the amount of individuals that are in the stores and allows us to adhere by all social distancing standards.” 

The Sauget dispensary doesn’t have online ordering set up yet, but medical customers who call ahead use an entirely separate waiting room and part of the store than recreational customers.

“They’ll have access to seperate point-of-sale, cashiers where they can complete their transactions,” Perlman said. “Minimizing the amount of interaction with the folks who are waiting in line or who are in the waiting room.”

At Illinois Supply and Provisions, all customers, recreational and medical, must submit an order online before going to the store in Collinsville.

Other precautions

Dispensary operators have prioritized sanitization, physical distancing and other measures to curb the spread of the coronavirus. 

“We’re asking our employees to make sure they clean their hands between every single transaction,” Perlman said. “All marketing collateral. Anything that could be in the hands of either employees or customers is being removed completely from the store.”

Verano-owned dispensaries in and outside of Illinois are no different, Dorf said. The company instituted the Illinois restrictions across its stores nationwide. 

“We’re limiting the number of individuals that can come into the waiting rooms,” he said. “We’re making sure individuals stay in their cars until it’s appropriate to come into the store.”

Medical customers take priority

Across Illinois, dispensaries are working to ensure the safety of their medical customers. Some dispensaries in the Chicago area have halted recreational sales, but that hasn’t happened in the Metro East.

The Green Solution in Sauget will adopt a policy Illinois Supply and Provisions already has, in which only medical patients are served on Mondays. The “Medical Mondays” policy starts in Sauget on March 30, Perlman said, adding the dispensary will also have “Medical Mornings,” starting March 31.

“For the first hour of operations at our sauget location, we’re only going to serve medical patients,” he said. “That is something that we’re focused on, prioritizing our medical patients, making sure they’re getting the medications they need.”

Dorf and Perlman don’t anticipate that medical patients will not be able to purchase their medicine. Both cited the state law, which requires dispensaries have enough cannabis for medical patients before they can sell to recreational customers. 

“If there is an inventory issue, a glitch in the supply chain where we feel like we’ll only be able to service our medical patients, they would be our priority,” Perlman said. 

Why are recreational customers still served?

Most dispensaries across the state are still serving both recreational and medical customers. Perlman said the Sauget dispensary will continue to serve both until there is a reason not to. Jushi’s dispensary in Normal has not started recreational sales yet. 

There’s another reason not to cut recreational customers off, Dorf said.

“It’s hard for us to differentiate between a medical and a recreational patient,” Dorf said. “There’s a lot of recreational patients that are ‘medical patients,’ they just don’t have their card.”

In the St. Louis region, that could mean a medical cardholder who lives in Missouri. The only open marijuana dispensaries are in Illinois. Dorf isn’t promoting people cross state borders, but he said it’s something that is already happening. 

Eric Schmid covers the Metro East for St. Louis Public Radio as part of the journalism grant program Report for America, an initiative of the GroundTruth Project.

Follow Eric on Twitter: @EricDSchmid 

Send questions and comments about this article to: feedback@stlpublicradio.org

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