When six county health departments teamed up on March 16 to unveil California’s first shelter-in-place restrictions, their orders listed the industries exempted from closure as “essential businesses.” Cannabis dispensaries — even those selling products to people with a medical prescription — did not make the list.
In San Francisco, the Department of Health quickly declared that “cannabis dispensaries and cannabis delivery services are not essential businesses,” causing minor panic, block-long lines, mob-like hoarding, and widespread public backlash. Amid the uncertainty, many dispensaries across the Bay Area made the decision to close their doors.
“It was a strange time, that’s for sure,” recalled Executive Director Debby Goldsberry of Oakland’s Magnolia Wellness.
As county officials across the Bay Area rushed to interpret what really constitutes an “essential” business, dispensaries found themselves in a tense state of limbo. And because they serve both medical and recreational clients, there was ample room for interpretation.
The initial confusion quickly waned. “By 9 p.m. the night shelter-in-place was announced, the Oakland City
Administrator’s office had already let Magnolia know they considered dispensaries essential businesses,” Goldsberry said. “The county was right behind them on this, doing the same the next day.”
Magnolia reopened less than two days later, after using its hiatus to implement nearly 100 procedures based on guidance from the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Meanwhile, in San Francisco, Mayor London Breed swiftly caved to immense public pressure and deemed cannabis essential with medical use.
In Santa Cruz County, which boasts the 25th-most dispensaries per capita in the nation, the Health Services Agency (HSA) was quick to deem cannabis dispensaries essential public services. The HSA decreed that they could in fact continue to serve clients — but with some game-changing and rather disruptive caveats.
“It was confusing at first,” said a budtender at Ben Lomond’s Central Coast Wellness Center dispensary. “We were closed for two days trying to figure out what was legal and not. There was a lot of anxiety about the situation.”
Then on Thursday, March 19, Gov. Gavin Newsom issued a sweeping COVID-19 shelter-in-place order for all California residents. To curb the spread of the pandemic, only vital and “essential” businesses or service providers — like grocery stores, gas stations, banks, pharmacies and media — were allowed to continue daily operations. Once again, however, there was no mention in the “shelter-in-place” order regarding cannabis dispensaries, or the cannabis industry as a whole.
All across the Bay Area and California, the COVID-19 pandemic has caused a rush of confusion for cannabis dispensaries, as government officials have issued edicts on how and even whether they can continue doing business, only to quickly reverse them in some cases. Late last week, the government of Berkeley issued an order that dispensaries there could offer deliver service only: no in-store shopping or even curbside pickup, as other “essential” businesses are allowed to do. After a loud uproar from dispensary owners, the order was rescinded in less than a day.
Trying to keep up with the current rules has been dizzying for consumers and dispensaries alike. “It’s reinventing the wheel for us, on a weekly basis,” said owner Kevin Watts of the Santa Cruz dispensary Surf City Original.
Everything Has Changed
Today, many cannabis shops are busier than ever, and the San Francisco-based delivery service Eaze had its number of first-time deliveries and website sign-ups double almost overnight.
“There’s a weird mass hysteria going on now,” said Cole Hembree, owner of Felton’s Curbstone Exchange. “In the wake of the shelter-in-place order, we literally doubled our numbers. People are freaking out about COVID-19 and ordering more — in a stockpile-type scenario. We’re doubling our orders from all of our vendors just to keep up with demand.”
Curbstone, known affectionately as “The Curb” by the cannabis dispensary’s regulars living in and around the mountain community north of Santa Cruz, has been doing record-breaking business this month.
“People are getting freaking nuts,” Hembree said. “We’re seeing everyone stocking up. Even the people who’ve been with us for a long time. They are buying more than usual. People are buying the same things they usually do, just way more of them.”
It’s not just Curbstone that has been inundated by old and new customers. Demand is spiking, and shockingly strong, at dispensaries across the Bay Area, California, and the entire nation. Weed shops in Oregon, Washington, Colorado, and
Alaska have reported huge numbers and substantial jumps in sales, new customers, and order amounts. On Wall Street, large and small cap stocks are being lifted skyward on a flurry of positive headlines and newfound enthusiasm for all things green.
It’s been a little over two years since weed began to go legal across the state of California. To date, commercial cannabis sales have raised more than $1 billion in taxes. The recreational cannabis market — one that was launched to much fanfare and with sky high expectations — got big quickly, but never quite reached the level that many had predicted. Brutal competition between the legal cannabis industry and the thriving black market has contributed to semi-sluggish recent growth, and the oversaturation of some key markets.
But now, thanks to the coronavirus, the Golden State is experiencing a cannabis resurgence. A new wave of enthusiasm has taken over the cannasphere, and some in the weed biz are going so far as to declare a second “Green Rush.” California dispensaries have reported record growth in recent weeks — in some cases, numbers not unlike the first day of recreational sales. Some are ordering more product and increasing their inventory, hiring additional delivery drivers, and even hiring new employees.