Weed remains "essential" during Washington's stay-at-home order. Here's what that means for local retailers

The coronavirus may have been able to smoke out your favorite restaurants, businesses and millions of jobs. But weed? Not so fast.

As states including Washington issue some version of a stay-at-home order, those with legalized cannabis have classified it as an "essential service," allowing producers, processors and retailers to stay open. Yes, what was illegal everywhere a decade ago has now become one of the few thriving industries as everything else seems to crumble.

However, it's not an essential service simply because it makes Netflix more interesting for everyone stuck at home. It's because people use marijuana for medical issues.

"It's a legitimate treatment and needs to be available for those treatments," says Julie Graham, a spokeswoman for the Washington Liquor and Cannabis Board. "Because in Washington the medical marijuana and recreational adult market are sold in the same businesses, it just makes sense to keep the entire operation open."

Still, cannabis businesses in Washington need to follow Gov. Jay Inslee's guidance on social distancing to prevent the spread of coronavirus. Locally, cannabis retailers say they're doing their best to do just that.

At Lucky Leaf in downtown Spokane, ropes and tape have been put up to make sure customers and budtenders all stay six feet apart, says owner Shilo Morgan. Customers used to be able to hold the product in their hand, but now they can't touch it until they purchase it. They've also put hand sanitizer at each station, and all the budtenders are wearing gloves.

Morgan says she was initially surprised cannabis retailers were deemed essential.

"Then I looked at it, and there's a lot of patients who still need to get their medication," she says.

She adds that cannabis can provide some benefits during this time.

"I think it can help with the anxiety of it, to help calm people down," Morgan says.

Business has stayed steady, she says. She notes, however, that online sales have picked up as customers attempt to spend less time in the store. And more people are buying edibles, she says. That may be because health experts don't recommend smoking or vaping, especially during a pandemic that can severely harm lungs.

Dustin Meehan, manager at Smokane, says they've implemented "a couple lines of attack" when it comes to ensuring social distancing. They've put visual marks to show what six feet looks like. The store is shaped like a circle, so they've marked "X" in spots where people should stand. He adds that they're disinfecting every surface multiple times a day.

Leading up to Inslee's order, he says business was good but inconsistent, characterized by huge swings.

"Since the order has gone into effect, business has stabilized a little bit," he says.

He was glad to see retailers were able to stay open. If legal cannabis shut down, it could just go back to the black market.

"A lot of people depend on our products for day-to-day life. If access stopped, I'm sure there would be a surge on the black market and that's something nobody wants," Meehan says.

In Washington, the LCB says drive-thru windows are still not allowed. Nor are outdoor sales from a tent or kiosk. But the LCB says it's going to temporarily allow retailers to have curbside sales, in an effort to promote social distancing.

Businesses, however, may be a bit reluctant to make that move. Morgan, with Lucky Leaf, says they haven't decided if that's something they want to do. She says it could lead to robberies.

"Putting a budtender out there or bringing product outside like that makes me nervous," she says.

The LCB is also temporarily relaxing enforcement of a law prohibiting minors from being on the premises of weed producers and processors. On the agency's website, they say "this temporary allowance is to accommodate families that have been impacted by school closures." The children would have to be a child or grandchild of the licensee, cannot be actually working for the business, and cannot possess any of the products. Kids still cannot be on the premises of retail locations.

Graham, with the LCB, says that the agency is not going to enforce social distancing as much as educate about it. Hopefully, cannabis businesses being essential will be a positive.

"It helps the businesses stay open, it provides easy access for medical [patients] to continue getting their marijuana, and then also there's an opportunity for the adult recreational market to have access," she says. ♦

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About The Author

Wilson Criscione

Wilson Criscione, born and raised in Spokane, is an Inlander staff writer covering education and social services in the Inland Northwest.