Dispatches from Quarantine: Stories from the front lines of Colorado’s shifting cannabis industry, during COVID-19

Dispatches from Quarantine: Stories from the front lines of Colorado’s shifting cannabis industry, during COVID-19

Colorado's cannabis industry is transforming to continue service

VicesApril 03, 2020 By Will Brendza

Well, things aren’t getting better yet and we’re another week deeper into the strange and terrible saga of 2020. It’s begun to feel like Groundhog Day down here on Planet Earth, and a nightmarish Groundhog Day it is.

COVID-19 cases have surged to over a million worldwide, with 53,211 people dead. In the US alone, we’ve lost 6,000 Americans. On top of that, 6.6 million people applied for jobless benefits over the last week, doubling the Feds’ expectation of 3.3 million. According to economists, by the end of April unemployment in America could be as high as 15%.

And in the coming days, you can expect that the Trump administration will recommend everyone start wearing masks and gloves in public. A measure that might help, and one that will surely make the situation look more dystopian than it already is.

At least, despite all the madness, we still have cannabis here in Colorado. Could there be a better vice to burn these days away with? Not just because it’s fun and it smells nice, but because of its meditative, sedative qualities: cannabis can reduce anxiety — it’s a tool for keeping your cool through these tumultuous times; it can help you sleep, it can help you meditate, it makes dull movies seem interesting, makes games feel totally immersive, and even makes food taste better.

(Okay, maybe a few of those are anecdotal benefits, but you get the picture: Cannabis is a welcome medicine right now.)

It’s why businesses like Green Tree Medicinals and Lightshade Marijuana Dispensaries are busting their backs to make sure that We The People still got bud (which also means they still have an income and can support their employees through this pandemic).

But it hasn’t been easy. The owners, managers and bud tenders of these fine establishments have had to change almost everything about how they do business — and they’ve had to change it again and again on a moment’s notice over the last few weeks.

“It has been nothing short of complete and utter pandemonium,” says Lisa Gee, the Director of Marketing and CSR for Lightshade. “We're anticipating that we may be operating in a space right now where it's constantly shifting and moving.”

Which, so far, is exactly what it’s been. Old rules are being thrown out the window, new rules are being made up to replace them, ordinances are being broken or altered, and the regulatory differences between what cities allow and what the Colorado Marijuana Enforcement Division (MED) is mandating, are causing mass confusion.

Take for instance, the curbside pickup ordinance, which the MED began on Tuesday, March 24th. Prior to this pandemic and the emergency rules that the MED is outlining, selling weed on the street was very illegal for these businesses. It likely would have cost them their license had they offered a curbside pickup option of any kind before COVID-19.  

As of the 24th, however, it’s the law. And now, once again, people are getting their pot out in parking lots.  

Alley Feiler, the founder and CEO of Greentree Medicinals, describes how she learned on Monday that her recreational dispensaries would have to switch over to curbside pickup on Tuesday.

“We were like, ‘All right, let's just try to figure this out.’ You know?” Says Feiler.

So that’s exactly what they did. She spent all night working on a new curbside menu, and planning out the system so that it met the MED’s requirements. Tuesday morning, they started telling customers who showed up, to order online; and for those who hadn’t, they also offered a curbside ordering service.

By Wednesday, Feiler says almost half of the people who came by had caught on and by Thursday they weren’t offering curbside ordering anymore at all.

But, that wasn’t all they had to do, to stay in compliance. The emergency ordinance that allowed recreational dispensaries to do curbside cannabis pickup orders, essentially extends dispensary’s license to sell, into an area adjacent to their building. That also means, though, that they need specialized cameras outside. Cameras that can not only pick up a person’s face, but that can pick up a person’s ID.

“So we also had to install these IP cameras in all of our locations,” Feiler says.

And then, they developed a system:

“We have someone standing outside at all times now, and they're basically checking in with the customer when they pull up, asking if they've already put an online order and if they have a picture I.D.” Feiler explains. They then bring the ID inside, find the order and then someone goes back out to the car and moves the customer into the transaction spot, under their sweet new cameras to confirm the I.D. Then they’ll get the person’s card or cash, go inside, get the payment transacted, bring the card, receipt and the product back out, have them sign for it outside in view of the cameras and then, easy as that, they’ve made a successful sale.

And then we do it again, and again,” says Feiler.

It may not be perfect, but it works (at least for the time being).

Of course, it wasn’t the end — this last Monday, the 30th, the MED decided that only dispensaries that can run card payments are allowed to do curbside pickup orders. Any business that’s cash only (which, mind you, is a lot of businesses in the cannabis industry, since banks still can’t technically take their money) now must conduct their sales indoors. They have to adhere to strict social distancing ordinances inside, but even still, many dispensary employees are concerned by how many people they’re being exposed to in such a confined space.

“It's just, the question is how long is this going to go on for?” Feiler asks. “How long are we going to have to do this for?”

It’s a good question. One that everyone (from the cannabis industry to the service industry, the events industry, and almost every other industry) is asking themselves. A question that might not have a very hopeful answer right now. This could go on for a long time (into June at least) and it might leave a permanent mark on the cannabis industry.

After all, now, everyone knows it’s possible to conduct cannabis sales outside. Why move backwards from progress like that?

But, when asked if she thought if this roller coaster of regulation changes would leave a lasting impact on her industry, Lisa Gee, with Lightshade Dispensaries remained skeptical. She defaulted to quoting Donald Rumsfeld: “There's just too many unknown unknowns,” she said.

“Long term, it's hard to say what's going to happen with the trends.”

Gee did point to a small bright side, though: “I think that one potential upside is that I'm hearing a lot of people are becoming more interested in cannabis and CBD, in terms of managing their anxiety right now.”

People who might have been skeptical, on the fence, or even die-hard anti-cannabis in the past, are now eyeing it with a little more interest. Gee says that one of Lightshade’s partner companies, Leaf411, a cannabis hotline for the “canna-curious” has been blowing up with inquiries. People are calling in to learn more, to cut through the mis-information on the web and get real answers to their questions about cannabis.

If more people can find solace in this magic little flower, if more people can relax a little, and ease their anxieties about life on Earth in 2020, then that counts for something. It’s why Cannabis is an essential business right now — not everyone may not need it to survive, but it certainly helps in times like these.

Lucky for us we have a determined cannabis industry full of people like Alley Feiler and Lisa Gee, running tight operations at Green Tree Medicinals and Lightshade Dispensaries — who are going to keep us high and happy through whatever is to come.

They’ll have no shortage of challenges, to be sure, but damn are we fortunate they’re willing to run this gauntlet.

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Next week: We’ll talk with some folks in Colorado’s wide world of alcohol, to get a taste for life on the other end of the booze that’s keeping us buzzed.