Massachusetts marijuana officials have once again extended several temporary regulations that were first enacted at the outset of the coronavirus pandemic and are meant to reduce face-to-face interactions in the cannabis industry.
The Cannabis Control Commission voted unanimously Thursday to extend three policies through the end of 2023. The emergency rules allow medical marijuana patients to pick up “curbside” orders from dispensaries without leaving their cars, waive the requirement for an in-person doctor’s appointment when obtaining a medical marijuana card for the first time, and permit applicants for pot business licenses to conduct their required community outreach meetings virtually.
Agency leaders, however, said they will soon need to either make the regulations permanent or scrap them altogether, instead of regularly voting to extend them.
“I am uncomfortable with them continuing to be... waivers or interpretations,” said Shawn Collins, the commission’s executive director.
Collins added he was particularly squeamish about the curbside pickup of medical marijuana, because it relies on an interpretation of state rules that considers dispensary parking lots “extensions” of the company’s indoor sales floor.
Commissioner Kimberly Roy said she was worried commission enforcement agents could not ensure that minors were not present in the car during curbside transactions, though they are required to be conducted within view of security cameras.
“I would want better protections in place around security before I even consider making this permanent,” Roy said.
Earlier in the pandemic, 30 medical dispensaries opted into curbside pickups. Today, Collins said, only 13 still offer the service, but he noted other licensed pot firms are using the temporary policy to argue the commission should allow drive-through windows on a permanent basis.
In contrast to their skepticism about curbside pickup, commissioners signaled they would likely allow businesses to continue meeting virtually with neighbors of their proposed facilities, as long as municipal leaders consent and the meetings are recorded and made available for later rewatching. Chairwoman Shannon O’Brien noted that the commission itself has been meeting virtually since the beginning of the pandemic, and argued the practice affords better access and engagement to people with disabilities and those who may not be available at the time of an in-person meeting.
Agency members appeared to have mixed feelings about whether to continue allowing virtual doctor’s appointments for obtaining a medical marijuana card, which have accounted for 80 percent of all new certifications since the pandemic began.
They noted that the policy has expanded access to medical marijuana, especially in more rural areas of the state where few physicians and nurse practitioners have registered as certified cannabis providers, and that major medical associations are moving to endorse virtual appointments as a permanent feature of healthcare.
But they lamented the often-cursory nature of appointments for medical cards. State law requires a “bonafide” relationship between patients and doctors who issue recommendations for medical cannabis. Since most primary care physicians are not registered to do so, however, patients typically turn to specialized practices or providers with whom they have little or no history and which only rarely give guidance about which cannabis products might best treat their conditions.
“Too often it feels to me like a permission slip to go shopping,” Collins said. Patients are “left to their own devices... which I think is a shame.”