After a two-month closure amid the coronavirus pandemic, Massachusetts marijuana stores are scrambling to prepare for their expected reopening Monday, and warning consumers to expect a drastically different shopping experience.
Regulated cannabis shops will be among the first “nonessential” businesses permitted to resume operations under the state’s phased reopening plan. But restarting pot sales, which Governor Charlie Baker shut down in March, won’t be as simple as flipping a switch.
Marijuana stores and their suppliers said that, since the plan was unveiled earlier this week, they’ve been rushing to prepare their inventory and bring back laid-off or furloughed workers. They are taking advantage of the Cannabis Control Commission’s decision to temporarily waive a regulation requiring such employees to undergo a new background check before returning to the job.
“Putting my staff on a leave of absence was one of the worst parts of closing, so to be able to make those phone calls was really exciting,” said Caroline Frankel, the owner of Caroline’s Cannabis in Uxbridge, whose 10 previous employees have all agreed to return. “I’ve been worried about them. We all want to get back to work.”
However, Frankel and other operators agreed their biggest challenge is drafting procedures to safely sell marijuana outside the confines of their stores. During the first phase of the state’s plan, customers will have to order ahead then pick up their products through a car window (or on foot, at some locations) from workers outside.
For marijuana stores, whose interiors are bristling with video cameras and other required security measures, suddenly transitioning to outdoor transactions presents a number of headaches.
Many shop owners said they spent this week setting up online menus and working out how to efficiently scan IDs and accept payments using handheld wireless systems, all while keeping marijuana products and cash secure and adhering to social distancing and sanitization guidelines. They’re also required to notify local officials of their plans and post signs explaining the new system.
Adding to the challenge: With months of pent-up demand and the reopening falling on a holiday, unusually large numbers of customers are expected Monday. But new cannabis commission guidelines ban marijuana retailers from doing anything that blocks traffic or sidewalks, or “increase[s] lines or crowds.”
“It’s a bit of a scramble,” Frankel acknowledged.
Kobie Evans, co-owner of Pure Oasis, the only recreational store in Boston, said his company had been preparing even before the reopening plan was announced.
“We’ve spent the last couple weeks building models around different scenarios — whether it’s curbside-only, or appointment-required, or order-ahead — and doing those gymnastics to figure out how we’d operate in each environment,” said Evans, whose shop first opened just days before the March shutdown order. “We’ll do whatever it takes to keep our customers and staff safe.”
Most marijuana shops are urging cannabis consumers to pay online in advance or with debit cards. For security reasons, cash transactions must be conducted just inside the building’s entrance and, for health reasons, with exact change only.
Despite the complications, industry leaders and state regulators said they are confident that heavily regulated recreational cannabis firms are up to the job.
“We have some new challenges in front of us, but they pale in comparison to not being open," said David Torrisi, the president of the Commonwealth Dispensary Association.
Still, Torrisi said, “we’re asking customers to have some patience, because things are going to look and feel a little different.”
Shawn Collins, the executive director of the cannabis commission, noted that many operators have already been conducting curbside sales of medical marijuana, which was deemed “essential.”
The commission’s successful oversight of medical marijuana sales “has demonstrated that we are effectively able to preserve public health and safety through curbside operations and other emergency protocols,” Collins said in a statement.
Baker’s decision to shut down the recreational marijuana sector in March set Massachusetts apart from other states where the drug is legal. The move drew strong protest from the industry, which argued many recreational consumers use marijuana for medical reasons and that cannabis companies could easily implement social distancing measures. (Baker had argued the stores drew too many out-of-state customers.)
Local officials also urged Baker to reopen pot shops, saying the heavily taxed companies generate much-needed money at a time when municipal budgets are imploding because of the impact of the coronavirus.
“I don’t want to pretend the revenue [from cannabis firms] isn’t incredibly important,” said Mayor David Narkewicz of Northampton, whose city hosts a New England Treatment Access marijuana store that was one of the first to open in the state. “We’re in a period of severe economic disruption. Most of our local revenue sources, from parking to hotels to the meals tax, have dried up.”
While most marijuana operators appear to have survived the two-month shutdown, there was still significant economic damage, with hundreds of jobs cut and two months of revenue lost, including what are typically some of the year’s best sales days around the traditional “4/20″ marijuana holiday in April.
The pandemic has especially hurt marijuana entrepreneurs in the licensing pipeline, making capital even more scarce and delaying many local permitting hearings.
The fact that marijuana operators in other states were booking record-high sales during Massachusetts’ pot shutdown only adds to the sting.
Still, many in the space are trying to retain perspective.
“At the end of day, me and my employees have our health, our safety, and the ability to pick up where we left off,” said Evans, of Pure Oasis. “It can’t negate the fact that we were closed for two months, but I’m grateful for that.”