A Week of Blunt Trauma on San Francisco’s Cannabis Scene

The shelter-in-place order sent the local cannabis industry on chaotic five-day bender.

You probably remember where you were the moment that everything changed. It was not long before noon on Monday, March 16 when word leaked that Mayor London Breed was going to issue a sweeping, unprecedented shelter-in-place order that prohibited San Franciscans from leaving their home “except for essential needs.”

Though it may seem like an eternity has passed since Mayor Breed’s directive, it was only two weeks ago. At the time, the Bay Area was considered the national epicenter of the pandemic, with 295 positive COVID-19 cases (we exceeded 2,300 on March 31), bars had only just been forced to shut down over the weekend, and national attention was focused on a disease-ridden Grand Princess cruise ship in our ports whose 2,600 terrified passengers were still stuck onboard.

Mayor Breed’s original statement, ordering all “non-essential stores” to close, did not explicitly mention cannabis or dispensaries. However, the way things were worded, city pot shops felt they were included among the “essential businesses” that would be allowed to stay open. “Individuals may leave their residence to work for or obtain services at any ‘Healthcare Operations,’” the order said, noting this included “healthcare suppliers” and stressed that “this exemption shall be construed broadly.” 

Since dispensaries serve card-carrying medical patients, they interpreted this to mean they were healthcare suppliers.”Yes, we’re still open,” the Medithrive dispensary declared in a 5 p.m. email blast. “We suggest using delivery and store pickup.”

Still, nervous stoners mobbed city dispensaries on Monday afternoon, and long queues developed outside shops. Social media was flooded with pictures of lines stretching the length of entire blocks. San Francisco dispensaries enjoyed their most lucrative day of 2020, according to the cannabis metrics firm BDS Analytics.

The high didn’t last long. At 6:30 p.m. Monday night, the city’s Department of Public Health (DPH) sent out an email to all dispensaries saying, “Cannabis Dispensaries and Cannabis Delivery Services are not considered an ‘Essential Business,’” informing dispensary owners that they would be required to close their doors starting March 17.

And so began our saddest St. Patrick’s Day ever — stuck inside, with no place to buy any green. The bummer was only amplified as word spread that dispensaries in Alameda County, Contra Costa County, and Santa Clara County were all still open.

San Francisco’s pot shop owners felt jilted but optimistic. “I’ve gotten good responses from some supervisors that they’re very concerned about this,” Sparc owner Erich Pearson told SF Weekly that morning. “I think we’ll see some sort of change in policy today.”

Sup. Matt Haney had been making noise about it on Twitter, too. “I feel very strongly that cannabis dispensaries should be able to stay open for pickup and delivery,” he told us just an hour before a rare closed session of a Board of Supervisors meeting. “I’ve heard from many of my constituents who are afraid about dispensaries being shut down for three weeks or longer. Some of them have anxiety or pain, and they rely on cannabis.

“If they haven’t done it by this afternoon, I’m going to bring it up at the meeting with the Public Health director.”

And that’s exactly what he did. At 4:30 p.m. on Tuesday afternoon, while the closed-door meeting was still in session, the DPH announced via tweet that dispensaries could continue operations, “while practicing social distancing and other public health recommendations.”

Like clockwork, most dispensaries in town opened the following morning. But the day after that, when Gov. Newsom issued shelter-in-place orders for the entire state, local cannabis culture got another sticky shock — the annual 4/20 party in Golden Gate Park was cancelled.

“Due to the ongoing concerns around COVID-19, the 420 Hippie Hill celebration on April 20th, 2020 in Golden Gate Park has been cancelled,” organizers wrote on their website 420HippieHill.com. “Thank you for understanding and support. See you next year.”

This was to be the first ever 4/20 with legal cannabis sales in the park, just like last year’s Grass Lands section at Outside Lands. But ominously, the 420HippieHill.com website has gone dark and as of press time says “Website Expired,” raising more questions about the event.

Even with local dispensaries and delivery services back open, there’s a cloud of uncertainty over the local cannabis industry. The city of Berkeley backtracked and shut down all its dispensaries last Wednesday, but then flip-flopped again and allowed them to reopen Saturday as pickup-only facilities.

The crowds at your local dispensary have probably mellowed down, as delivery and advance orders for “in-store pickup” are the new normal at San Francisco pot shops. It’s unclear how long we’ll have to stick with ordering our weed online first, being kept six feet apart in dispensaries, and these other forms of high maintenance.

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