Charlie Baker order lets medical marijuana shop stay open, but shuts down recreational sales

"Massachusetts is one of the few states in a big geographic area that has available recreational marijuana and a ton of traffic associated with that is coming from other states."

Brookline-03/23/19  The New England Treatment Access opend as the first marijuana shop in greater Boston Saturday morning.  Employees(left) wait on customers(right) at the counter. Photo by John Tlumacki/Globe Staff(metro)
New England Treatment Access in Brookline. –John Tlumacki / The Boston Globe

Recreational marijuana sales in Massachusetts will go on an at least two-week hiatus under a new order in response to the coronavirus outbreak.

The emergency order announced Monday by Gov. Charlie Baker requires all nonessential businesses in the state to close by noon Tuesday or allow employees to work remotely, as officials step up social distancing efforts to slow the spread of the disease. And while “medical marijuana retailers” were included on the lengthy list of “essential” businesses that can stay open, adult-use pot shops did not get an exception.

In other words, the more than 67,700 Massachusetts residents with registered medical marijuana cards will still be able to walk into any of the 61 dispensaries licensed to serve them.

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But the state’s recreational marijuana customers — who spent more than $400 million on products last year — are out of luck. The Cannabis Control Commission sent out an order on Monday night directing the state’s 42 retail dispensaries to cease and desist adult-use operations by noon Tuesday. And the state’s 14 adult-use-only retailers, which are not licensed to make medical marijuana sales, will have to completely close until at least April 7, if not longer.

During a press conference Monday morning, Baker attributed the decision to the number of out-of-state marijuana customers coming to Massachusetts, the only state on the East Coast where adult-use pot shops are open.

“Because Massachusetts is one of the few states in a big geographic area that has available recreational marijuana and a ton of traffic associated with that is coming from other states, we felt that in particular would need to be closed and would not be considered as essential as part of this order,” he said.

Baker said the order — which aims to reduce the unnecessary person-to-person contact that facilitates the spread of COVID-19 — treated medical dispensaries like health care facilities, which were designated essential businesses along with grocery stores, pharmacies, and even liquor stores.

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However, the fact that recreational pot shops didn’t get the same treatment drew outcries from cannabis industry advocates and drug policy reformers.

Massachusetts is the first state with licensed adult-use marijuana dispensaries to designate them as nonessential for the purposes of the coronavirus response. Similar orders in California, Illinois, Nevada, and Oregon have allowed both medical and recreational marijuana dispensaries to stay open.

David Torrisi, the president of the Commonwealth Dispensary Association, said Monday that “classifying adult use cannabis retailers as non-essential on the grounds that they attract customers from out of state overlooks the relief and comfort these products provide to thousands of Massachusetts residents and the efforts undertaken by the operations themselves.”

While appreciative that medical dispensaries in the state were designated as essential, Torrisi said many customers without a card use cannabis to manage similar conditions and symptoms.

“This loss of access would be akin to losing out on over the counter remedies for many,” he said in a statement. “For others, cannabis provides a small measure of relaxation which can help to ease the anxieties we are all facing during this time, much like a glass of wine to unwind at the end of the day.”

Torrisi also noted that the state’s recreational marijuana dispensaries are already highly regulated and have been implementing measures in adherence with the federal government’s safe distancing guidelines.

Earlier this month, the CCC encouraged dispensaries to review protocols around hygiene, line management, and pre-orders. And the state’s busiest marijuana store, New England Treatment Access in Brookline, announced last week that it was temporarily halting adult-use sales and would only allow medical patients in response to an order by Baker limiting public gatherings to 25 people (that limit was reduced to 10 people Monday). Some other shops said they would only allow recreational customers if they reserved their orders ahead of time.

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In the wake of the order Monday, dispensaries licensed to sell both adult-use and medical marijuana said they’d remain open for registered patients. However, adult-use-only shops, like Pure Oasis, the only recreational dispensary open in Boston, expressed hope they could reopen on April 7, though officials have noted the order could be extended longer.

Torrisi asked the Baker administration to reconsider their decision to shut down recreational sales. In a series of tweets Monday, the Transform Drug Policy Foundation, a New England-based marijuana legalization advocacy nonprofit, argued that the recreational customers would simply turn back to the unregulated illegal market in the meantime; the Netherlands recently reversed a similar decision in response to the coronavirus, ultimately allowing the country’s famous coffee shops to remain open under certain conditions. The group suggested states like Massachusetts should consider allowing marijuana delivery, rather than closing stores, to encourage social distancing.

Currently, the state has only licensed delivery services for medical marijuana patients. Earlier this month, the CCC encouraged dispensaries offering medical marijuana delivery to promote and expand those services. And in a public bulletin Friday, the agency announced a process for healthcare providers to certify new medical marijuana patients using telehealth services.


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