Canna-biz Blazes Trail for Retail’s Return

SF dispensaries helped write the book on safe operation for essential businesses under COVID-19

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi just threw America’s legal marijuana industry a fat treat. The House of Representatives’ latest $3 trillion coronavirus relief bill contains a provision that would allow cannabis businesses to have bank accounts, which means you could buy your pot with a credit or debit card.

Cannabis sales are currently an all-cash racket, due to strict federal banking regulations. But cash is dirty and covered with germs. A leading microbiologist estimated to CBS News that coronavirus can survive on paper money “for at least 10 days.”

The move away from paper money would “help address serious public health and safety concerns caused by operating in predominantly cash-only environments,” according to the trade group National Cannabis Industry Association.

Pelosi’s bill is scheduled for a Friday vote in the House. (Update: the measure passed by a 208-199 margin.) The cannabis reforms could be removed once Republican Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell gets his hands on the legislation. Still, the alarm has been sounded on the cash and coronavirus connection, which could lead to state or local reforms in the marijuana purchase process under COVID-19.

Here in San Francisco, cannabis has been deemed an essential business after dispensaries were initially left off the list of businesses allowed to remain open during shelter-in-place. But the local cannabis industry has weathered several sudden whiplash incidents before, like the overnight product ban and blowout sales of June 2018, and the rocky rollout of recreational marijuana in the city earlier that year.

“We’ve been operating in the cannabis space now for five years,” says Amanda Denz, co-founder and CMO of the Bay Area delivery service Sava. “We’re used to pivoting how we do things at a moment’s notice.”

“The major difference with COVID-19 is that we were concerned for everyone’s health,” she adds. “So the stakes for getting to right felt higher.”

Most San Francisco businesses have not been open during shelter-in-place. Dispensaries had to devise new safety protocols on the fly, developing safe and germ-free business practices that other unrelated industries will employ when they reopen.

“PPE — disinfectant, wipes, masks, gloves and hand sanitizer — were all very challenging to procure in the beginning,” Green Cross dispensary founder and president Kevin Reed tells SF Weekly. “There was also some confusion on what types of masks and face coverings were acceptable, like masks with valves.”

Your personal pot-purchasing habits may have switched to online delivery, or a freshly legalized online, advance ordering process called “curbside pickup” that many dispensaries now require. These contactless methods of buying cannabis have quickly become dominant, replacing the previous standard dispensary visits where you’d examine and smell your weed before buying.

“About 80 percent of our orders from retail consumers are originating online,” statewide dispensary chain Caliva president Steve Allan said in a recent industry webinar. “Which has been a monumental shift.”

Dispensary owners think the switch to buying marijuana online is going to become a permanently entrenched habit, even when shelter-in-place is lifted.

“There’s still going to be concern and trepidation out there for another 12 or 18 months, however long until we get a vaccine,” according to Allan. “[Buyers] realize the convenience of it, they realize it’s almost an easier way of shopping.”

Cannabis scored a historic win when it was designated as an essential medicine, but took a gut punch on the realization that marijuana businesses can’t get any stimulus relief. That makes the future of the chronic under coronavirus tricky to predict, especially if the dread second outbreak should occur.

“We are trying to take it one day at a time and not look to the future, because no one truly knows what it will look like in three months, six months, or a year from now,” the Green Cross’ Reed tells us. “Some of the guidelines put in place will become permanent and commonplace for many years to come.”

This post has been updated to reflect the House of Representatives’ passage of the coronavirus relief bill.

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