Cannabis users, shops suffer high anxiety after Massachusetts shuts down recreational sales

Gov. Charlie Baker on Tuesday extended an order closing nonessential businesses, including recreational cannabis shops, until early May.
First Recreational Marijuana Stores Open In Massachusetts
Products and paraphernalia on shelves during the first day of retail recreational marijuana sales at the Cultivate Holdings dispensary in Leicester, Mass., on Nov. 20, 2018.Scott Eisen / Bloomberg via Getty Images

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By Mansee Khurana

Shannon Venezia hasn’t had a seizure in four and a half years — a fact that she attributes to her decision to treat her epilepsy with cannabis instead of the prescriptions her doctor wrote, which she says would give her mood swings.

After recreational cannabis became available in Massachusetts in 2018, Venezia let her medical marijuana card lapse. With two young kids at home and a full-time job, she didn't think going to a doctor’s office to be re-approved for the card and then waiting up to two months for it to be processed was worth the hassle.

But when Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker ordered the temporary closure of nonessential businesses, including recreational marijuana stores, last week in response to the coronavirus outbreak, she panicked and bought a two-week supply.

“I have no idea what I’m going to do" if the order stays in place, she said. “Am I going to have to go to the black market, or am I going to have to try and get my card renewed and potentially expose myself to people who are sick?”

Venezia wasn't the only one to stock up. Medical marijuana dispensaries in her state, which have been allowed to stay open, reportedly saw massive lines as people feared worse things could be coming, like the potential need to self-quarantine. On Tuesday, Baker extended his order until early May.

Meanwhile, in other states where recreational marijuana businesses have been allowed to stay open, sales skyrocketed as the coronavirus crisis worsened, rising by nearly 100 percent in California and 40 percent in Colorado in midmonth, according the cannabis analytics firm Headset.

Massachusetts is the only state of the 11 that have legalized recreational marijuana to deem those shops nonessential businesses and order their operations to close. Baker said in announcing the order March 23 that he made the decision because the state is one of only three in New England that allow recreational marijuana use, which could bring in unwanted traffic from around the region at a time when officials are urging residents to stay home.

Dispensaries in his state are petitioning the governor to let their recreational operations stay open, arguing that marijuana is essentially an alternative medicine for various physical and mental ailments. So far, 14 recreational dispensaries have had to shut down until further notice, and some of the 28 retailers that do both recreational and medical sales say they might not be able to survive on medical customers alone, who made up less than a half of total state sales in 2018, according to the National Cannabis Industry Association.

Edward Dow, the CEO of Solar Therapeutics in Somerset, Massachusetts, said his company furloughed 40 of its retail employees and now can't help people he believes have demonstrated a need for cannabis, but have not renewed or applied for medical cards since recreational use became legal in the state. Many of his company's customers are seniors who use cannabis for pain relief but have never procured medical cards.

Some shops also complain that they're being treated unfairly given that liquor stores are considered essential businesses and allowed to stay open under the governor's order.

“It feels like there’s no reason that the governor banned recreational sales,” John Beninghof, the owner of Forest Tree LLC, a studio that produces promotional materials for marijuana cultivators and retail stores.

“Maybe it's the number of people," he said, referring to customers who thronged cannabis stores before the order went into effect. "But every liquor store is still open, which makes it even more frustrating. And if people can’t get their medicine but can drown their sorrows with alcohol, who knows what will happen?”

Morgan Fox, a spokesman at the National Cannabis Industry Association, said that continuing to allow access to recreational cannabis is important for those with conditions that don't qualify for a medical card.

“Just as a way to cut down on things that might endanger social distancing and crowds and panic buying, which could affect stockpiles for patients in the future, states should really take it upon themselves to let people know that they will have continued access," Fox added.

The loss of access, even if temporary, could have negative consequences for consumers, who might resort to buying cannabis on the street, Fox said, adding that the issue could have both health and economic consequences.

“The products in the illegal market are completely untested, unregulated," he said. “If states don’t allow for continued access, we’re going to see the illicit market propped up. Aside from all the public health issues, that’s tax money that’s not going to the state at a time when they absolutely need it.”

Dow said that if his shop were allowed to remain open, it would be able to enforce social distancing protocols just like any other essential business in the state. Given the extension of the order keeping nonessential businesses closed, he said he hopes the governor responds to the dispensaries' petition and reverses his decision on recreational marijuana stores, because right now they can’t even try to help customers in need.

"This mandated closing essentially stops the marijuana market in Massachusetts," Dow said. "We hope that the governor sympathizes with this petition and sees the thousands of lives this is affecting"