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Baker says reopening recreational marijuana shops amid coronavirus outbreak is a ‘non-starter’

Governor Charlie Baker speaks during a briefing on the state's response to coronavirus in the Gardner Auditorium of the Massachusetts State House on Monday.
Governor Charlie Baker speaks during a briefing on the state's response to coronavirus in the Gardner Auditorium of the Massachusetts State House on Monday.Sam Doran/Pool

Despite pleas from leaders in the cannabis industry to reopen adult-use marijuana stores, Governor Charlie Baker defended his choice Tuesday to keep them closed, even while deeming medical dispensaries “essential" and allowing them to remain open.

Baker has repeatedly said his biggest concern about reopening adult-use stores is attracting hoards of out-of-state customers, which could further spread the coronavirus virus throughout Massachusetts. The governor has already asked anyone traveling to Massachusetts from out of state to self-quarantine for 14 days.

At his daily press conference Tuesday, Baker reiterated those concerns.

“There is tons of evidence that because Massachusetts is one of the few states in the Northeast that’s legalized recreational marijuana, that if we make recreational marijuana available as an essential business ... we are going to have to deal with the fact that people are going to come here from all over the place, across the Northeast, and create issues for us with respect to the fundamental issue we are trying to solve for here, which is to stop the spread,” he said. “And for that reason and that reason alone, I think this is just, it’s a non-starter with us.”

In an effort to assuage Baker’s fears about out-of-state customers, many in the cannabis industry, including cannabis Commissioner Shaleen Title, have recommended reopening adult-use marijuana stores for Massachusetts residents exclusively.

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In a letter addressed to Massachusetts state officials yesterday, more than two dozen Massachusetts cannabis operators and applicants backed that idea, writing they are “fully supportive of limiting sales to Massachusetts residents during this health crisis and will not only enforce that policy, but will do our part to educate the public about that restriction once it is enacted.”

But when asked whether he would consider that on Tuesday, Baker said he wasn’t sure that was a legal option.

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“I don’t know if you can do that legally," he said. "It’s certainly something that some folks have talked about.”

But some in the industry already argue that such a move would be legal, pointing to policies in Colorado that initially restricted non-residents to smaller purchase limits than residents. Jordan Wellington, vice president of policy for the consulting arm of national cannabis law firm Vicente Sederberg, said the example in Colorado “provides important insight into this matter.”

“As far as Massachusetts is concerned, it is hard to imagine a more substantial reason or legitimate end than preventing the spread of the corona virus [sic],” Wellington wrote in a memo Tuesday.

Marijuana entrepreneurs have expressed concerns that if they’re forced to remain closed for the foreseeable future, they may not be able to dig out of the hole financially and reopen.

State Representative Chynah Tyler filed an amendment Friday in an effort to help those businesses, urging state leaders to allow adult-use marijuana stores to continue operating “in the same manner in which package [liquor] stores" are allowed to operate.

“In 2016, Massachusetts voters, through a ballot initiative, overwhelmingly voted in favor or legalizing the adult use of marijuana,” Tyler wrote in a letter to Baker, co-signed by state Representative Jay Livingstone and state Senators Nick Collins and Joseph Boncore. “Regulations were put in place to treat this newly legalized product similar to alcoholic beverages. We have a responsibility to ensure that this equity is upheld during these unprecedented times.”

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Felicia Gans can be reached at felicia.gans@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @FeliciaGans.