Recreational sales of marijuana have started back up in Massachusetts. Only medical marijuana was deemed essential, so recreational sales were cut off for a full two months. Adult-use cannabis fell under Phase 1 of Governor Charlie Baker’s plan to get Massachusetts up and running again.
Re-opening for recreational cannabis retailers comes with a caveat, though: businesses can only participate in curbside pickup. In Phase 2, those retailers will be permitted to open their doors for a limited capacity. Phase 2 is targeted for June 8th but that date could change.
Now, recreational cannabis retailers are having to shift their business models. The Commonwealth only allows delivery of only medical marijuana, not adult-use. During the quarantine, spikes of medical card holders spiked, but not enough to make up the difference.
“It was a drop in the bucket compared to what we had lost,” said Amanda Rositano.
Rositano is the president of New England Treatment Access, or NETA. She spoke with The Stash in an exclusive interview about what the company has been going through the past couple months, and what things have been like since curbside pickup started up for adult-use cannabis.
Rositano says many people use marijuana as a medicine, treating conditions like sleeplessness, anxiety, or pain. However, many aren’t able to register for medical cards for a number of reasons. They might have government jobs that bar them from being on the state registry, for instance. Some veterans who use the VA are also limited in that regard.
So even with the slight spike of extra medical cardholders, NETA has been struggling.
“We took a very significant hit. With the closure of adult use, our revenues were reduced by approximately 85 to 90%. So we really looked at any and all ways to innovate and to look at our business differently, understanding that this COVID situation is more like a marathon than a sprint. We needed to find new ways to serve our customers that would allow us to be in business, but also that would allow them the optionality that they need to be able to stop safely and comfortably.”
NETA had to lay off some employees and furlough others during the closure. The furloughed employees have come back to work now that recreational cannabis sales have started back up. The people who were laid off, however, saw their positions eliminated completely.
“We knew that when adult-use returned, that there was no way it was going to return to the capacity it was at pre-COVID, just in terms of the new requirements of social distancing and store capacity.”
Since recreational sales have started up again, pent-up demand in Massachusetts has been sending people flooding online to order cannabis products ahead for online pickup. The problem is, the curbside pickup model limits how many customers dispensaries can serve.
“Just to put it into perspective, our menu goes up the night before for the next day’s availability. Once the menu and pickup slots are opened for the next day in the evening, those pickup times fill up at our Brookline store in as little as 20-30 minutes,” Rositano told The Stash.
At NETA, all orders have to be placed in advance. To control the number of people who show up to the store at any given time, NETA gives people 15-minute windows where they can pick up their order.
Unlike other states, customers don’t stay in their cars during the curbside pickup. The Massachusetts Cannabis Control Commission prohibits sale of marijuana outside the facility.
Rositano says things have gone pretty smoothly so far, despite having limited time to prepare for the transition to solely curbside pickup, and meet the pent-up demand.
“We’re utilizing a door-side pickup model for adult use, as opposed to your typical curbside vehicle model. Our customers are actually walking up to the site; they have their ID scanned and verified to make sure they’re over 21. They show us their order number and that they’ve arrived during their scheduled pickup time. They pay – we accept debit cards and we do accept cash, although right now we’re asking customers to bring exact change to minimize time. Once they pay, they just head over to our back door. Their order is ready for them. They get their order and they’re on their way.”
The process involves as little contact between customers and employees as possible. IDs are scanned, so the cashier doesn’t have to touch the card; debit cards are placed directly into the machine, which is wiped down between each use.
Rositano says feedback has been positive so far, but the number of sales the company is able to fulfill is cut down to less than a quarter of its normal capacity.
“The reality is, we’ve made a conscious decision to put safety over profits here.”
Since most recreational cannabis companies also deal with medical customers, they’ve been functioning in some capacity through the entire closure. That’s allowed them time to prepare for when things really get back up and running again in Phase 2.
Glass or plastic partitions will go up at the checkout counter, and markers on the floor will designate six-foot spacers for people to make sure they’re socially distancing as they browse or wait to purchase products.
NETA will sanitize designated high-touch surfaces every 30 minutes and have a contracted company deep clean the place every single night.
Massachusetts has only allowed adult-use marijuana sales since 2018. That first year, the Marijuana Policy Project says recreational cannabis sales topped $420 million, raising $71 million in state tax revenue and approximately $11.8 million in taxes for minimalities. The Commonwealth Dispensary Organization says the adult-use cannabis industry accounts for 8,000 jobs in Massachusetts.
NETA was one of the first two recreational shops to open in the Commonwealth.
“We’re a relatively new company, so it’s not like we’ve been around for years and years and have decades of cash reserves on hand, so it was really difficult,” said Rositano.
Today, there are over 30 recreational use retailers in Massachusetts.
While other small businesses have access to federal loans programs put in place during the pandemic, no one in the cannabis industry is afforded that luxury. Since marijuana is still deemed illegal in the federal government’s eyes, businesses that sell the product aren’t recognized the same way.
Rositano argues that marijuana dispensaries are uniquely positioned for contactless transactions in a way that grocery stores, liquor stores, and other essential businesses in Massachusetts are not.
“No one touches our inventory until it belongs to them,” Rositano pointed out. “You’re not coming into our stores, shopping around, picking things up and putting them back. We’re not handing off that product to you until it’s paid for and you own it.”
Cannabis industries are also used to strict regulations, having on-staff compliance teams, environmental health and safety teams, and more.
Rositano says one way to help is by buying in bulk or taking your friends’ order and picking that up at the same time you go to purchase something for yourself. Since fewer people are allowed inside at a time, that would make sure more customers are able to move through the store.
“It’s been a real challenge to stay afloat with such a huge hit to our revenues, and the result of that has been a bit of restructuring of our organization to make sure we can keep a focus on serving our patients.”