Cannabis sales rise as dispensaries move to protect at-risk patients

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Daily graphic by Roxanne Panas

Maia Spoto, Assistant City Editor

As stocks tumbled and stores shuttered in response to COVID-19, statewide recreational marijuana sales increased by $1 million from last month, according to a Thursday news release.

Sales of recreational marijuana rose from nearly $35 million to $36 million from February to March, according to the Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation. Pamela Althoff, executive director of the Cannabis Business Association of Illinois, said the uptick reflects that March is a longer month than February. Overall, she said, business rates have remained “pretty standard” amid the pandemic.

Under the stay at home order, legal cannabis operations fall within the limited range of businesses that are allowed to continue functioning in Illinois during the COVID-19 pandemic. Gov. J.B. Pritzker designated cannabis dispensaries and licensed cannabis cultivators as “essential” businesses, belonging to both the food and agriculture sector and the healthcare sector.

Medical cannabis users, Althoff said, often belong to high-risk groups for developing complications related to the virus, due to their age or to underlying medical conditions. Medical marijuana cardholders and their designated caregivers can now pick up cannabis products curbside, a rollback in regulations that once only permitted distribution within authorized zones inside dispensaries.

“Our top priority is to minimize the risk of and protect as many people from exposure to COVID-19,” said state Sen. Toi Hutchinson (D-Chicago Heights), senior advisor for cannabis control to Pritzker. “These steps prioritize that critical objective, while also ensuring medical patients have access to the medicine they need.”

The curbside policy was set to expire on March 31, but Pritzker recently extended the time frame until April 30, along with the stay at home period, according to the news release.

A representative from cannabis dispensary MedMen, which operates a branch in Evanston, said in an email the store is urging clients to use the curbside pickup and delivery service whenever possible. The representative also said MedMen is following local, state, federal and global safety guidelines closely.

Dispensaries are required to comply with statewide regulations for sanitation, which include disinfecting commonly touched surfaces every half hour and wiping down counters after sales, Althoff said. In addition to cleaning showrooms thoroughly, she said many members of the industry have embraced procedural changes to ensure their clients’ safety.

Some Illinois stores are assigning their patients time slots to pick up their products in person after placing their orders online. These windows are distributed evenly throughout the day to keep visitors from overwhelming the dispensaries.

To further reduce in-store crowding, many businesses have reduced the time period in which they sell recreational cannabis. Others have suspended the sale of recreational marijuana altogether.

However, Althoff said the line between medical and recreational cannabis use is not always distinct.

“There still are many medical professionals that don’t wish to prescribe cannabis as an option,” Althoff said. “(But) individuals can purchase cannabis recreationally. Many individuals are choosing not to go through the medical card process and are just using recreational cannabis to treat their symptoms.”

Despite industry efforts to streamline the process, Althoff said many patients have shared that the registration process for a medical marijuana card is “cost-prohibitive” and “a hassle.” Furthermore, the industry is facing a worker shortage — many dispensary workers are patients themselves, and must stay home because they belong to COVID-19 high-risk groups, Althoff said.

When recreational cannabis became legal in Illinois last winter, cultivators rushed to obtain licenses to grow the product. Now, losing so many points of sale could clog the supply chain, she said.

“It takes us about a six month period, from the time that you actually put the seed in the ground to the time that you actually put the product in a package and deliver it,” Althoff said. “We’re right there. We’re all getting to that six month period.”

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