Maryland's medical cannabis companies are getting creative about finding ways to get their products into the hands of paying customers, while keeping face-to-face retail interactions to a minimum.
The state's medical cannabis growers, processors and dispensaries, which provide medicinal products to about 94,000 certified patients statewide, were listed among the essential businesses that will be allowed to continue operating under new state restrictions announced by Gov. Larry Hogan Monday. But as COVID-19 cases and anxieties continue to spike, those businesses are experimenting with new ways to promote social distancing and increase safety.
Some dispensaries, like Culta and StoreHouse in Baltimore, have been limiting the number of consumers allowed into a sales area to one at a time. They and others are also jumping on new opportunities to fulfill to-go orders, thanks to new rules issued by regulators at the Maryland Medical Cannabis Commission, which gave dispensaries clearance to begin delivering orders made online or via phone directly to customers waiting in their vehicles in a dispensary’s parking lot.
In a particularly unique move, Edgewater retailer Mana Supply Co. is utilizing the drive-thru teller stations built into its existing dispensary space, which was formerly a bank.
Christopher Jensen and Matt Volz, Mana's owners, said their company had always planned to introduce a drive-thru option after some major renovations and thoughtful conversations with regulators. But the rapid spread of COVID-19 accelerated Mana's plans, and its specially outfitted drive-thru facility has launched as the first operation of its kind in the state. The firm spent about $100,000 on renovations and technology installations, including high-speed garage doors and high-resolution cameras, to make the drive-thru experience as safe and secure as when patients physically come into the dispensary.
Jensen said he is grateful for the guidance and flexibility regulators at the cannabis commission and in state government have offered to help businesses like his as they figure out how they can continue serving patients.
"Allowing people to order in advance, and do the exchange right in parking lot, it's a great way to minimize exposure," Jensen said. "But for our Edgewater dispensary, we thought by moving directly to that drive-thru option, we could even further limit that face-to-face time between patients and employees."
Frederick's gLeaf Wellness Solutions is taking another approach to limiting retail face time, by offering free delivery of cannabis orders directly to patients' doors.
Phil Goldberg, gLeaf's CEO, said his dispensary has been working to build up its delivery capabilities over the past year. Now, it's looking to add more drivers to its fleet so the company can continue to serve patients who may not want to visit cannabis stores in-person amid the coronavirus outbreak. Close to two-thirds of gLeaf's business is coming from online delivery orders right now, he said.
Goldberg echoed Jensen in applauding state regulators, and especially nodded to the move of ensuring cannabis firms made it onto the statewide list of "essential" businesses.
"We view ourselves as an essential health care provider, just like any pharmacy," Goldberg said. "We serve patients with [post-traumatic stress disorder], chronic pain, seizures, epilepsy. It would have a huge impact on lots of people’s lives if they couldn't access this medicine."
Amid the uncertainty of how COVID-19 would impact the cannabis industry in the weeks to come, patients seem to be stocking up. Jensen said sales at the Mana dispensary are up over 30%.
Jeff Jacobson, of StoreHouse in Baltimore, said last week, when patients were concerned dispensaries would be shut down as state restrictions tightened, he saw much larger transaction sizes. It was a trend seen nationally as well, according to industry research firm BDS Analytics. The Colorado-based firm noted cannabis sales between March 13 and March 15 were up about 28% across the U.S., compared to the previous week.
"It's a little bit of what I’d call the 'toilet paper run,'" Jensen said. "People are nervous. There's just a lot of anxiety and uncertainty out in the market right now."
Cannabis companies will likely have to continue coming up with new ways to adapt to the market changes being caused by COVID-19, Jacobson said. For example, he said some of his patients have asked about delivery, but offering that option as a local retail business is difficult without any existing infrastructure or delivery network in place.
“It’s something that I think all of the dispensary owners are grappling with...Every moment, there’s a new concern and a new kind of operational issue that all of us are dealing with,” he said. "It is kind of day by day, minute by minute."