California Governor Gavin Newsom sent shockwaves through the West Coast on Thursday when he officially ordered all 40 million of the state’s residents essentially shelter in place (meaning stay home unless buying basic necessities or seeking medical care). But among the “essential services” that he deemed will remain open — on top of pharmacies and food stores — was, perhaps surprisingly, marijuana dispensaries.
Popular dispensary MedMen, which operates 33 stores in nine states including 12 in California, says it is operating with modified hours, but all stores remain open (except for one in Monterey Bay, Calif. which is closed due to local jurisdiction). “As of now, we have been deemed an essential business in the markets that have established protocol,” Christian Langbein, the company’s spokesperson says. “We are closely following recent guidelines released by each state and local jurisdiction, plus that of the CDC and the WHO in the best interest of our customers and employees and have adopted the recommended safety protocol.”
As a company seemingly unscathed by the coronavirus outbreak thus far, MedMen is in the minority.
In the two months since the first case of COVID-19 landed in the U.S., the nation’s private sector is a changed place. Over half of America has closed all non-essential businesses, recreational activities — from festivals and theme parks to cruise ships — have come to a screeching halt, sports teams have hit pause on their seasons and the financial market may be on the verge of a crash.
But amid the colossal shifts, the cannabis industry seems poised to stay afloat.
Denver-based Medicine Man, one of the first and largest dispensaries in the U.S., tells Yahoo Lifestyle that in the weeks since the coronavirus began spreading rapidly, its sales have actually escalated. “Our numbers are significantly higher than they would normally be this time of year,” says Sally Vander Veer, the dispensary’s CEO. “For the most part, we're seeing customers who are grateful that were open because they can get their medicine.” Although Vander Veer wouldn’t describe the influx as panic buying, she has definitely noticed a shift among customers — and has begun shifting how her company operates as well.
“We’re encouraging online orders. So customers can go to our website site, place an order and it will be ready for them to pick up at our store. They can be in and out in 30 seconds,” says Vander Veer. “On the floor of our dispensaries, we have tape that to ensure that we're maintaining six feet of distance between every customer. All of our budtenders are wearing gloves and using hand sanitizer or washing their hands in between each transaction.”
Medicine Man, which employs 90 people, is preparing for the possibility of moving all sales online — but Vander Veer feels confident that the company’s four locations will remain open. “Luckily we're considered essential businesses so far in Colorado,” says Vander Veer, referencing a mandate from Colorado Governor Jared Polis requiring all non-essential businesses to close. “I think it speaks a lot to the importance of marijuana as medicine — especially in times when people are anxious, [depressed] or they can't sleep.”
Vander Veer says the distinction of “essential services” in the time of the coronavirus makes sense both for citizens and the state as a whole. “[Governor Polis] has been a strong supporter of our industry because I think he realizes what we contribute to the economy,” she says. “And he's smart enough to know that like liquor stores, you can't take these things away from people in times of stress.”
Cannabis is indeed big business in Colorado, garnering nearly $1.3 billion in sales in 2018 alone. But it’s far from the only state turning a major profit on legalization, or bringing in a plethora of jobs. According to Leafly’s 2019 Cannabis Jobs Report, there are an estimated 243,700 full-time employees working in the marijuana industry today, a 110 percent increase from 2016, when only a handful of states had recreational laws. Now, with marijuana legal recreationally in 11 states, experts predict it will continue to be a major driver of job growth.
Or at least ahead of this outbreak, they did. But even in places where COVID-19 is spreading, such as in Washington, dispensaries show no signs of slowing down. Ian Eisenberg, owner of the popular Seattle-based dispensary Uncle Ikes says his company is remaining open amid a cluster of cases in the state. But like Medicine Man, he is working to ensure customers and budtenders (the moniker for marijuana dispensary workers) are as safe as possible.
“We're limiting the number of people in our stores at a time, we're encouraging pre-orders. If you want to talk to a budtender you're going to wait in line outside for a long time and there are chalk marks on the sidewalk showing you where to go.” Eisenberg tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “Inside we're making people stand six feet apart and I think we only have, depending on which store it is, a handful of people in the stores at a time versus 20 or 50 before.”
In a post on Uncle Ike’s Facebook page from Wednesday, the dispensary shared an aerial view of customers waiting in line to get in, each diligently appearing behind a white line drawn in chalk. Eisenberg realizes how strange the situation is, but says that allowing cannabis to flow freely is in everyone’s best interest. “The pharmacies, the grocery stores are going to be allowed to stay open so I don't know why they wouldn't allow pot stores,” says Eisenberg. “Most of our customers self-identify as one form or another a medical user.”
Beyond that, he says it’s simply the smart choice for keeping people who are under lockdown sane. “I think if you want people to stay indoors and not go out and not interact with a lot of people? Pot's a pretty good thing to have,” he says. “Then you can get stoned and watch Netflix.”
For the latest news on the evolving coronavirus outbreak, follow along here. According to experts, people over 60 and those who are immunocompromised continue to be the most at risk. If you have questions, please reference the CDC and WHO’s resource guides.
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