Should Marijuana Dispensaries Deliver During The Coronavirus Pandemic?

Legal Marijuana
Legal marijuana at Herbal Care Center on Chicago's West Side on Jan. 1, 2020. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ
Legal Marijuana
Legal marijuana at Herbal Care Center on Chicago's West Side on Jan. 1, 2020. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

Should Marijuana Dispensaries Deliver During The Coronavirus Pandemic?

Colorado has made online sales of recreational marijuana legal during the coronavirus epidemic, fulfilling one of the pot industry’s biggest wishes and fueling its argument for more concessions that could be made permanent when the crisis eases.

It’s one of several signs emerging from the virus outbreak of just how far ingrained marijuana has become in mainstream life in several states. Dispensaries are being designated “critical businesses” and are allowed to operate through statewide stay-at-home orders. Large markets such as California, Illinois, Oregon and Washington state are allowing curbside pickup during the crisis.

California already allows for home delivery, and some in the pot industry want other states to follow California’s lead.

“We need to be able to have as little contact as possible to people,” said Colorado dispensary manager Ben Prater. “If people are sick or if they’re immunocompromised, they don’t need to be leaving their house during this time. So I think that delivery is just kind of a necessity at this point.”

Under Colorado’s emergency rules, customers can pay for marijuana online and then pick up their purchase at the store. Massachusetts, Michigan, Illinois and Oregon also allow online recreational marijuana sales. But the practice nonetheless remains severely limited because credit card companies tend to shy away from dealing with a drug that is still illegal under U.S. law.

Morgan Fox, a spokesman for the Denver-based National Cannabis Industry Association, said easing restrictions on dispensaries is a step, but he doubts credit card companies will embrace the marijuana industry unless lawmakers provide some cover by passing the Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act, which aims to protect financial institutions that serve cannabis-related businesses.

One example is Cannabis Station by Rocky Mountain High, a dispensary housed in an old filling station in downtown Denver. The dispensary has been providing curbside pickup after Gov. Jared Polis’ March 20 directive, but it hasn’t delved into online sales because it hasn’t found a credit card company willing to process the transactions.

Prater, the dispensary’s manager, said he believes the state should allow deliveries during the crisis, as well. Home delivery of marijuana, which is already allowed in several states, was not covered by Polis’ order.

Colorado lawmakers last year legalized delivery but left it up to municipalities to decide if they want it. The state law allows for the delivery of medical marijuana this year and recreational cannabis in 2021.

In California, the Bureau of Cannabis Control endorsed a rule in January 2019 that allowed home marijuana deliveries statewide, even into communities that banned commercial pot sales. But even though the state has allowed broad legal marijuana sales since 2018, it remains unavailable in large areas where local governments have banned commercial activity or have not set up rules to allow sales.

“Delivery and access really need to be made available in every corner of the state,” especially during a pandemic, San Francisco-based cannabis attorney Nicole Howell said.

The coronavirus has provided the opportunity, however grim, to make that argument loud and clear — and not just in California.

Rachel Gillette, a Denver-based cannabis attorney and a board member of Colorado’s chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, said she and the group have asked local elected officials to draft ordinances or resolutions to allow delivery of medical marijuana. But she acknowledged that could be difficult given the times.

“They may have a lot of other things on their plate than trying to figure out how to facilitate delivery for marijuana businesses,” she said, adding that allowing recreational pot delivery before next year would require legislative action.

The Colorado governor’s office said in an email there are no plans to allow businesses to apply for recreational marijuana delivery licenses before 2021, and online sales of recreational marijuana would not be allowed after the executive order expires.

The Marijuana Enforcement Division can’t authorize online recreational sales without a change in state law, but it will continue to evaluate whether the emergency rules should be amended, renewed or repealed, according to the governor’s office.

Under state law, emergency rules can only stay in effect for 120 days.

Associated Press writer Michael R. Blood in Los Angeles contributed to this report.