Massachusetts Deems Recreational Marijuana “Not Essential”

On the list of essential businesses, “licensed medical marijuana retailers, and retail facilities specializing in medical good and supplies” was included in the category specified for workers at medical or biomedical facilities, but not recreational dispensaries.

Paul Revere statue and the old north church in Boston Masachusetts Source: iStock

Gradually across the United States, individual cities, counties, and states have been enacting their own versions of Shelter-in-Place orders. The directives in some way impact every person and every business, whether essential or not.

In Massachusetts, once the commonwealth was asked to stay at home, the Cannabis Control Commission stepped in to provide guidelines on what that would mean for the marijuana industry.

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Governor Charlie Baker announced a stay-at-home advisory on March 23rd. At first, that was meant to last through April 7th, but days later, the Governor extended it all the way until May 4th.

The order signed by Governor Baker and Lieutenant Governor Karyn Polito lists as one reason for the extension, “…The number of presumptive positive and confirmed cases continues to rise exponentially in the Commonwealth,” and says every county in the state is affected.

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Two days before the order’s extension was signed, the number of confirmed coronavirus cases in Massachusetts rose by over a thousand in a 24-hour period. Deaths are rising steadily there, too.

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Social gatherings are limited to ten people at a maximum, and non-essential businesses must close. On the list of essential businesses, “licensed medical marijuana retailers, and retail facilities specializing in medical good and supplies” was included in the category specified for workers at medical or biomedical facilities.

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Recreational cannabis dispensaries, however, are not considered essential in Massachusetts and were ordered to close.

In a letter to Governor Baker, ten state representatives and two state senators asked the State to reconsider, and allow recreational cannabis to be considered essential. 

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The letter reads in part, “We have a responsibility to ensure that this equity is upheld during these unprecedented times.”

Baker receives backlash amid industry layoffs

The Veterans Cannabis Project launched an entire website where people can go to flood state lawmakers’ inboxes with requests to adjust the order. The website says its message to Massachusetts legislators is clear: 

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“Veterans Cannabis Project supports the Governor keeping medical dispensaries open to the public during this critical time. But our nation’s heroes deserve full access to the legal marijuana treatment options they rely on for medical care. 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. Email your state lawmakers and ask them to support Massachusetts veterans.”

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David Torrisi, president of the Commonwealth Dispensary Association, says the non-essential designation of recreational dispensaries has already led to 2,000 employees in the industry being laid off.

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Torrisi argues that because adult-use cannabis is already a heavily-regulated business, it’s one that already operates under many of the sanitization and distancing guidelines the government now recommends.

“Even in less extraordinary times, customers are not allowed to touch products and their movement within the store is fully controlled by employees. We believe these are important distinctions from other businesses that continue to be open, like liquor stores and flower shops,” Torrisi told Wikileaf.

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New England Treatment Access says the limitation in its sales resulted in an 80% drop in customer traffic at its dispensary in Brookline Village. The president of the company, Amanda Rositano, told Wikileaf in a statement, 

“We are very supportive of the Governor’s and everyone’s concern about spread of the virus. But we do think we can safely operate as we have been doing with our medical program. We are currently operating, under the Governor’s order, as an essential service. We are following the CDC and state guidelines in our operations with our employees and our patients, including social distancing and daily deep cleaning of our facilities.”

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Rositano explained, most of NETA’s adult-use consumers depend on cannabis products for the same things (pain, anxiety, end-of-life-care), regardless of whether they have a medical card; many, Rositano says, simply don’t want to be part of a state database. 

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By allowing adult-use sales, we can reduce burdens on our healthcare system by addressing the health needs that adult-use customers find in cannabis,” Rositano told Wikileaf.

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“Adult-use operations also serve a similar function to package stores and restaurants, which are listed as essential businesses. We do hope the Governor reconsiders his decision.”

Cannabis businesses won’t receive help from the federal government

The Massachusetts Cannabis Control Commission says there are 67,700 medical marijuana patients in the state – just under a tenth of the state’s population. Earlier in March, that Commission altered its certification process temporarily so medical providers can now grant marijuana patient certifications using telehealth. 

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One reason recreational marijuana shops are pushing so hard to be allowed open is that adult-use cannabis is not eligible for federal recovery money to aid the business. The CDA points out, because marijuana is still classified federally as in illegal substances, businesses that sell it won’t be provided a safety net from the federal government.

Torrisi told Wikileaf,

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“We can do more good by producing tax revenue for Massachusetts to assist in local and state relief efforts. This industry has brought in more than $115 million in state and local revenue; if adult-use is reinstated, these funds can go a long way to helping the affected get back on their feet…Massachusetts is the lone state to differentiate between adult-use and medical cannabis as far as what’s essential. We believe that is the wrong stance and the CDA membership is fully willing to adapt their operations, including limiting sales to Massachusetts residents, to address the concerns of State Leadership.”

The Cannabis Control Commission issued its own Administrative Order on March 27th, saying Medical Marijuana Treatment Centers (MTCs) would be allowed to offer curbside pickup for patients.

The order explains, MTCs are now permitted to conduct pre-sales by phone or online, then have people drive to a parking lot or individual entrance to a dispensary and have an employee deliver cannabis products to the car. The order mandates curbside operations have to be done on MTC premises so as to make sure not to impact other municipalities. The order states,

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“All MTCs conducting Curbside Operations shall submit standard operating procedures and a facility layout indicating changes to the outdoor premises within forty-eight hours of commencing these operations. The facility layout for Curbside Operations must include the following: 

    1. Identify designated curbside sales area(s), traffic queuing plans, and signage to direct Registered Qualifying Patients or Caregivers; 
    2. Ensure curbside sales only occur on the licensed premises and do not occur on public sidewalks or adjacent parking lots; and 
    3. Ensure traffic does not overflow onto public or private property unless permission has been obtained by the municipality and/or owner.”

People paying in cash can only do so inside the building, and are not eligible for curbside pickup.

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