Confusion Plagues Bay Area Cannabis Industry Over ‘Essential' Designation

NBC Chicago

A handful of jurisdictions around the Bay Area have said that marijuana dispensaries are considered "essential businesses" under the widespread shelter-in-place mandates enacted this week, but advocates are urging governments to ensure they continue to operate throughout the state and region.

Santa Cruz, Monterey, Contra Costa and San Francisco counties have all explicitly stated that cannabis dispensaries can continue to operate along with other vital service providers like grocery stores, pharmacies, auto mechanics and banks, among others.

In Santa Cruz County, dispensaries may continue to operate but with the caveat that all sales should be conducted either via home delivery or curb-side pickup in order to maximize the effectiveness of "social distancing" recommendations.

"People are still able to access their cannabis and medication, we're just restricting person-to-person contact as much as possible," said Samuel LoForti, the county's cannabis licensing manager.

Non-retail cannabis businesses in Santa Cruz County can stay open, but only in order to conduct the "minimum necessary operations" while practicing social distancing, quarantining all deliveries for at least 12 hours and staggering shifts to minimize person-to-person contact.

Across the Bay Area, however, there remains some confusion over the rule that determines what constitutes an essential business and how that applies to the cannabis industry, which provides products to both medicinal and recreational users - since each county's public health officials can interpret it somewhat differently.

In Monterey County, health officials consider agricultural and healthcare operations to be essential businesses, according to Joann Iwamoto, the county's cannabis program manager.

"All legal commercial cannabis operations fall under one of these definitions," Iwamoto said in an emailed statement. "As such, all legal commercial cannabis operations may remain open. However, all social distancing requirements must be observed."

In Contra Costa County, all "licensed medicinal-marijuana dispensaries are allowed to stay open under the order," according to Contra Costa Health Services spokesman Will Harper.

The problem, however, is that since the dispensaries serve both medical and recreational customers, it's unclear how such a policy will be enforced.

"There are some places trying to distinguish between medical and non-medical, but all retailers are serving both," said Ellen Komp, deputy director of California NORML, a cannabis advocacy organization.

"The only safe place that people can access either recreational or medical cannabis is in one of these licensed dispensaries and to shut those down is to send them back out to an illicit market," Komp said, noting that the public health effects of such a move would likely prove to be counter-productive.

"Certainly, we want to make public health paramount," she said.

In some jurisdictions, officials have advised businesses to read the rules carefully and make the best decisions they can.

"Since the shelter in place directive was issued by the County of Alameda, the city of San Leandro is not the lead agency for purposes of making such an interpretation of the County Health Officer's order,"

according to an emailed statement from San Leandro Deputy City Manager Eric Engelbart.

"The city also recognizes that there is a medical component to each of the City's three licensed cannabis dispensaries, all of whom serve patients with valid medicinal recommendation letters or ID cards," Engelbart said.

At least one of those dispensaries is conducting sales via curb-side pickups and deliveries, he said.

Representatives from Alameda and Santa Clara counties did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

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