The global coronavirus pandemic has upended significant swaths of the economy in Massachusetts, and the relatively-young legal marijuana industry is no exception.
Just as it was finding a groove and getting more retail marijuana stores open all around the state, the Cannabis Control Commission has ordered a halt to all non-medical marijuana business and is looking for ways to support the fledgling industry and its workers, and to be ready to resume the rollout of adult-use retail when the COVID-19 public health emergency abates.
“I’m not going to forecast what might happen in the industry other than I am concerned. You know, there are a wide variety of companies in this industry — some big, many small — the bigger ones have more resources, obviously, to weather a storm like this than the smaller ones, so I’m very concerned,” CCC Chairman Steven Hoffman told reporters Friday after the commission met to discuss possible ways to limit the damage done to the industry. “But I can’t offer a forecast because I don’t know what the future holds for any of us, not just our industry. I will say we will continue working collaboratively with the industry and having more conversations like the one we just had to do everything that’s within our regulatory authority to help ease the burden.”
Since Governor Charlie Baker ordered the closure of all non-essential businesses starting March 24, only registered patients in the state’s medical marijuana program have been able to buy marijuana. The governor has resisted calls to follow the lead of other states and allow adult-use sales as an essential service, and the Legislature — largely bound by the pandemic to doing things by unanimous consent — did not address an attempt by Representative Chynah Tyler to re-open adult-use shops and put them on the same footing as package stores.
The CCC has also eased some of the requirements for becoming a medical marijuana patient, allowing new patients to become registered through a telehealth visit with a certifying physician rather than an in-person visit. That, combined with the limited availability of marijuana, has led to "a pretty significant surge" in the number of initial patient registrations, CCC Executive Director Shawn Collins said.
"We've issued more than 30 waivers to clinicians to issue those initial certifications via telehealth. In the intervening time, from March 23 through April 1, we've received more than 1,300 new patient registrations. In the 10 days prior, we received 500 patient registrations. So that's a significant jump in patient registration," he said Friday.
Though the product is largely identical, the medical program offers several benefits not available in the recreational market. Medical marijuana is not taxed, patients can get marijuana delivered to their homes, and patients can buy edibles with higher THC levels than are allowed in the non-medical market. Before being allowed to renew their medical marijuana card, any patient who initially becomes registered via telehealth will have to visit their certifying clinician in person, Collins said.
Hoffman said he was not at all surprised by the spike in medical patient registrations.
“There’s always been a belief that people were — some people and I don’t know the percentages — but some people were using the adult-use market to satisfy their medical needs,” he said, pointing out that the CCC does not keep purchase records for the non-medical side of the industry and does not identify consumers other than to confirm they are at least 21 years old. “And I think since the adult-use market is temporarily shut down, I think those people are applying for medical licenses.”
But with more people trying to obtain medical marijuana, the CCC on Friday started to consider ways to ensure the stability of the medical marijuana supply chain — to be sure that patients who have been using the program for years can continue to get their medicine and the influx of new patients will be able to access it as well.
The CCC talked about the possibility of allowing licensed recreational cultivation facilities — which are allowed to continue tending to their crops during the shutdown but cannot start new plants — to sell their product to medical treatment centers. Commissioner Kay Doyle was tasked with taking the lead on determining the feasibility of that and other ideas.
Of course, not all recreational consumers are switching to the medical side of the legal industry. Many are likely returning to the illicit sources of marijuana they relied on prior to Massachusetts launching legal sales.
"It's always been impossible to really quantify what's going on in the illicit market and what impact legalization is having. But of course I'm concerned that people that will not be able to go to an adult-use store for the period of time that they remain closed will use the illicit market," Hoffman said. "That's something I'm very concerned about."
The chairman said the CCC has been busy processing license applications during the adult-use industry shutdown in hopes of keeping the steady pace of approvals and store openings going whenever retailers are allowed to re-open.
"I'm sure it'll take some time to get it up to speed. What I'm pleased about ... we are working pretty efficiently at the commission in terms of processing applications and so I think once the industry is allowed to reopen, we can, I think, have not just the current licensees, but a large number of licenses that have been processed during this period of time closer to being ready to open," he said. "It's not going to be an on-off light switch and get everything back to normal. I think it'll take a little adjustment, but as I said, I think we'll have a pretty strong queue of people ready to go in addition to the ones that have already been licensed."
During Friday's meeting, which was held via video conference with access for the press and public, the CCC also began a discussion of other ways it might be able to ease some of the economic impacts of the pandemic on its licensees.
The possibilities Collins mentioned included extending business license renewal dates until the state of emergency is lifted, being flexible about industry worker registrations given that some workers may be laid off and eventually brought back, and waiving certain fees like the $40 a month cost of tying into the CCC's tracking software.
“I am concerned for everybody feeling these impacts. The adult-use industry is, however, unique because of the conflict between federal and Massachusetts law. Much of the relief being offered to companies and employees through the $2 trillion CARES Act will not be available to this industry,” Hoffman said. “We have an obligation, I strongly believe, to do everything that we possibly can to mitigate the economic damage that’s being incurred by these companies and individuals within the bounds of our regulatory authority.”