Amid Pandemic, Cannabis Commission Closes Offices, Urges Marijuana Firms To Take Precautions

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The Massachusetts Cannabis Control Commission will close its offices to the public amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, and is urging licensed marijuana companies to take precautions to protect patients and consumers.

In a bulletin issued Friday to the dozens of recreational and medical marijuana firms it oversees, the commission said its Worcester headquarters and Boston satellite office would close Monday “until further notice.” Many of its employees would work from home, the agency added, while field inspectors would be required to wear protective equipment. The notice pleaded for patience from companies, saying officials would “undertake every effort to ensure there is minimal disruption to productivity” at the commission while still ensuring safety.

The cannabis commission also told marijuana growers, processors, and retailers to “encourage good hygiene, urge employees to stay home when they feel sick, and be flexible and considerate with sick leave benefits, amongst other precautions.”

The directive follows complaints from some cannabis industry workers that they feel pressured by their employers’ policies — spoken or unspoken — to show up even when they feel ill.

The commission also asked cannabis firms to step up their cleaning and sanitation, noting that such efforts are especially important in the cannabis sector because medical marijuana patients who frequent dispensaries and handle products may have compromised immune systems.

The agency’s bulletin urged companies to review and update their procedures for managing lines of customers, and to encourage their customers to order ahead. The agency also said medical marijuana firms, which have long been permitted to deliver products to patients, should consider promoting and expanding the scope of their delivery operations.

Regulators and industry leaders said that, so far, the outbreak has not had a measurable impact on marijuana sales. However, that could change quickly as disruptions to daily life increase.

“Business has increased at some stores, and at some stores, it’s decreased,” said David Torrisi, president of the Commonwealth Dispensary Association, which represents 35 pot companies. “That could be for reasons not related to COVID-19.”

In response to the outbreak, he said stores are putting out extra hand sanitizer for staffers and customers and encouraging workers to regularly wash their hands. Other options are limited, he added, as most employees involved in marijuana retail sales, production, and cultivation cannot do their jobs from home.

“Most people have to do the actual physical work,” Torrisi said. “The telecommuting option is not as prevalent in this industry as it is in some others.”

He added that the commission’s bulletin was “spot-on” and added, “we are confident we will keep up our facilities to the high bar already set by the [commission’s] regulations.”

The spread of the virus prompted numerous marijuana companies to e-mail their customers in recent days, detailing their stepped-up cleaning procedures and asking shoppers to avoid direct contact with their employees.

Ted Rebholz, the chief executive officer of marijuana firm Temescal Wellness, wrote in an e-mail to customers that the company has designated “cleaning stewards” to sanitize frequently-touched surfaces at its dispensaries in Hudson, Framingham, and Pittsfield. He also asked consumers who feel sick — or who traveled to “China, Hong Kong, Iran, Italy, Japan, South Korea or Washington State in the past three weeks” to stay home.

“We’re all in this together,” Rebholz wrote. “You may see staff wearing gloves and/or masks — please know that they are taking this action as a precaution. Our teams are washing their hands regularly throughout the day and wearing gloves when appropriate. We ask that customers also wash hands for 20 seconds, as recommended by the CDC.”

Unlike, say, glasses of beer or cigarettes, marijuana joints are frequently passed from friend to friend — in fact, not sharing is often considered a breach of etiquette. But now, marijuana consumers are changing their habits as they adjust to the threat of coronavirus and COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus.

Peter Bernard, press secretary for the marijuana advocacy group MassCann, said members of the organization’s board typically pass joints around at meetings. But at a recent MassCann meeting, everyone brought their own.

“It’s sad that when smokers get together, it’s the whole bogart situation,” Bernard said, using a term that refers to hogging a joint to oneself. “That’s so counter to the culture. It hurts. But nobody wants to share and chance somebody getting sick.”

Not all tokers are being so careful though, which concerns Bernard.

Once coronavirus started to spread in Massachusetts, Bernard said he decided to stock up on marijuana from one of his grower friends because he wanted to avoid leaving home. As someone with diabetes and heart issues, he said, he faces higher risks if infected.

“If I catch it, it would be bad for me,” he said. “I probably have enough [cannabis] to get me through the end of May.”

Bernard said the purchase limits at dispensaries would likely hamper his ability to sufficiently stock up.

The virus has prompted the cancellation or postponement of numerous marijuana events, including the New England Cannabis Convention, or NECANN, which had been scheduled for next week and was set to draw thousands of industry members.