Medical cannabis businesses increasingly deemed ‘essential’ during coronavirus pandemic

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coronavirus; marijuana, Medical cannabis businesses increasingly deemed ‘essential’ during coronavirus pandemic

(This story has been updated to include information about Colorado.)

More states and local officials are declaring medical marijuana dispensaries “essential” services akin to pharmacies.

Essential businesses can remain open even as nonessential  companies are forced to close to help contain coronavirus outbreaks. 

The declarations and tacit approvals come as a relief to medical marijuana businesses, many of which feared they might have to close as COVID-19 containment measures increased.

By taking these steps, cannabis industry watchers say that regulators are putting MMJ companies in a special category above other mainstream businesses such as restaurants, bars and shops.

“You can’t say Walgreens or CVS can stay open but cannabis dispensaries have to close,” said Jason Erkes, spokesman for Cresco Labs, an Illinois-based multistate operator.

“I think that’s something municipalities (and states) are taking into consideration.”

Even temporary closures could prove devastating to some cannabis companies – especially to financially fragile marijuana businesses.

Many customers rely on MMJ products to relieve conditions such as chronic pain, severe epilepsy and post-traumatic stress disorder.

However, acknowledgement of medical cannabis dispensaries as “essential” is happening in a patchwork way across the country, and it’s uncertain how many jurisdictions will adopt that view.

Here are some examples of official and tacit acknowledgments:

  • The New York state Department of Health on Tuesday declared that medical cannabis businesses are essential.
  • Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak ordered all nonessential businesses to close for 30 days starting at noon Wednesday. But regulators said licensed recreational cannabis stores and MMJ dispensaries are allowed to remain open as long as they adhere to strict social-distancing protocols, according to guidance issued Wednesday. Licensees must not allow individuals to congregate, and consumers are strongly encouraged to utilize cannabis delivery services or complete orders online or over the phone.
  • San Francisco on Monday ordered the closure of nonessential businesses, including all cannabis stores, but reversed that decision Tuesday, saying cannabis dispensaries could stay open but only for pickup and delivery.
  • A number of states across the country are allowing expanded marijuana delivery services and curbside pickup, moves that cannabis businesses consider a form of official acknowledgement that MMJ dispensaries are an essential service.
  • Rural communities, such as in the Colorado mountain areas including Gunnison and Summit counties, also allowed marijuana dispensaries to remain open this week, while curtailing nonessential businesses and activities such as restaurants and bars.

Advocacy groups and medical experts also are urging government officials to allow MMJ dispensaries to stay open.

For example, the medical marijuana advocacy group Americans for Safe Access sent a letter this week requesting that governors and state regulators take immediate action to ensure MMJ services aren’t interrupted when governors are creating emergency coronavirus plans.

Dr. Peter Grinspoon, a Harvard Medical School instructor, told The Boston Globe that although he believes Massachusetts should close as many businesses as possible, “we need to think very carefully about the fact that tens of thousands of people in (the state) truly depend on cannabis as a medicine.”

Cutting them off would mark “a disaster,” he said.

Even cutting off recreational sales could cause a serious disruption for some if exceptions aren’t made, industry officials say.

That’s because many cannabis customers haven’t registered as medical marijuana patients but use products purchased from adult-use stores to treat medical conditions, Erkes noted.

Jeff Smith can be reached at

For more of Marijuana Business Daily’s ongoing coverage of the coronavirus pandemic and its effects on the cannabis industry, click here.