Medical marijuana dispensaries in Massachusetts have been deemed “essential” and will be allowed to stay open, despite an order for most other businesses to close by noon on Tuesday because of the coronavirus pandemic, Governor Charlie Baker said Monday.
Medical dispensaries will be “treated for all intents and purposes the same way we treat healthcare operations,” Baker said during a press conference Monday.
But beginning Tuesday, dispensaries will not be allowed to serve recreational (or “adult-use") customers, and adult-use-only cannabis shops must close. Baker said the “main reason” for shutting down recreational sales is because the business draws “a ton of traffic” from other nearby states at a time when officials are urging residents to stay home.
The edict quickly drew protest from cannabis advocates and industry leaders, who noted that liquor stores are being allowed to remain open during the health crisis and argued that many consumers — not just state-certified medical marijuana patients — are relying on the drug’s therapeutic qualities during the ongoing crisis.
They also said that recreational cannabis shops could safely operate by restricting their sales to Massachusetts residents and offering curbside pickup to maintain “social distancing” protocols, and that the order to close Tuesday had prompted crowds of consumers to arrive at pot shops Monday to stock up before they close. Leaders further fear the move will not tamp down demand but simply push consumers into the illicit market.
“There are thoughtful ways to do this, but to just knock it out — it isn’t right, and it’s not fair,” said David O’Brien, the president of the Massachusetts Cannabis Business Association. “It’s discriminatory to adult-use cannabis consumers in a state where it’s legal.”
Several other businesses and industry groups said they planned to petition the Baker administration to reconsider its order for recreational shops to shut down. David Torrisi, president of the Commonwealth Dispensary Association, said in a statement that “two-thirds of customers use cannabis for management of medical conditions and symptoms.”
“This loss of access would be akin to losing out on over-the counter-remedies for many,” he wrote. “For others, cannabis provides a small measure of relaxation which can help to ease the anxieties we are all facing during this time, much like a glass of wine to unwind at the end of the day.”
Baker officials and the state Cannabis Control Commission, which regulates marijuana dispensaries and producers, did not immediately respond to requests for further comment.
State and local leaders in a number of other US jurisdictions where cannabis is legal, including in California, have deemed both medical and recreational marijuana dispensaries “essential” and allowed them to remain open amid similar business shutdown orders. In most cases, however, officials have forced such firms to change their operations by switching to curbside pickup or delivery so customers don’t crowd dispensaries and risk spreading the virus.
The state Cannabis Control Commission earlier this month told dispensaries to “encourage good hygiene, urge employees to stay home when they feel sick, and be flexible and considerate with sick leave benefits, amongst other precautions."
Last week, the commission also announced that while a state of emergency remains in effect in Massachusetts, it will allow health care providers to apply for waivers allowing them to issue and renew medical marijuana recommendations through online video sessions, instead of requiring in-person visits. The goal of the temporary policy is to minimize the risk that traveling and interacting with others poses to medical marijuana patients, including some who have compromised immune systems and are therefore at higher risk of developing severe coronavirus symptoms.
Baker’s order to close all non-essential businesses and an accompanying advisory urging residents to stay home will be in effect at least through April 7.