Governor Baker’s “Essential Services” Order Excluding Adult Use Faces Justified Backlash

Last week, Governor Baker issued a COVID-19 Essential Services Order establishing which businesses in the Commonwealth may remain open as “essential” while most of our commerce, unfortunately but necessarily, shuts down in order to slow the deadly Coranavirus pandemic.  Medical Marijuana Dispensaries and Liquor Stores made the cut.  Adult use cannabis did not.

Following suit, the Cannabis Control Commission issued a Summary Cease and Desist Order that (1) allows medical marijuana activity to continue unabated (separately, the Commission has relaxed rules on telemedicine for certifying physicians and issued an Administrative Order allowing curbside pickup at MTCs); (2) orders adult use retail and processing operations shut down; and (3) orders all new adult use plantings to cease, while only allowing plant maintenance such as integrated pest management, feeding and irrigation of existing crops.

Immediately, the exclusion of adult use created an appropriate backlash.  Veterans groups were angered because veterans often eschew medical cards, lest they risk federal VA benefits, while accessing adult use cannabis to treat PTSD, traumatic injuries, and chronic pain – all indications for which cannabis has proven to have therapeutic benefits in clinical studies.  A group of representatives, led by Rep. Chynah Tyler, attempted to insert into the pending municipal rescue bill, an amendment declaring adult use an “essential service,” but was rebuffed by leadership.  Vets groups and grassroots groups, alike, are circulating letters urging the governor to change his position.

There are very compelling arguments that adult use cannabis businesses should be declared essential, including:

  • 66% of adult use consumers report purchasing cannabis for proven therapeutic uses, such as pain management for which they previously used addictive opioids. There are many reasons that non-recreational cannabis patients do not get medical cards, such as privacy concerns, Veterans and others who would risk federal benefits, and administrative difficulty.
  • As friend of the blog, Dr. Peter Grinspoon, argues many adult use cannabis consumers will be able to receive highly addictive opioid prescriptions to treat pain during the pandemic, but not the cannabis that staves off opioid dependency.
  • Cannabis users will now turn to the black market, where deadly vaporizer products containing Vitamin E acetate still circulate widely.
  • There is an easy solution to Governor Baker’s valid concern that adult use dispensaries attract numerous out of state customers who could transmit the Coronavirus.  Adult use transactions could require a valid Massachusetts driver’s license.
  • Sales could be limited to curbside pickup, as is the case with restaurants and other essential businesses.  Adult use dispensaries have reservation applications and online ordering that facilitate curbside pickup and age verification.
  • It is certainly unfair and unjustified that liquor stores were deemed essential, but not adult use cannabis dispensaries.
  • Adult use cannabis has an effective tax rate of 20%. For a state about to plunge off the budget precipice, cannabis sales can generate far more tax revenue with fewer transactions (and greater distancing) than any other retail industry.
  • Let’s face it, many Economic Empowerment applicants, WBEs, MBEs, VOBs, microbusinesses, and local entrepreneurs were already cash starved as regulatory delays and other well-known hurdles challenge cannabis business startups in Massachusetts.  A shutdown in adult-use licensing and inspections (and for those lucky few who are operational, adult use sales) will kill the Economic Empowerment, Social Equity and Microbusiness programs in Massachusetts.  Only the largest few businesses have the resources to weather this.  Five long years of diligent efforts by our Legislature, the Cannabis Control Commission, and tireless advocates to accelerate these important equity programs could vanish.

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