Adult-use store owners in Massachusetts fight against closures, medical enrolment rises

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Bethan Rose Jenkins, Cannabis News Writer/Editorial

A group of adult-use cannabis store owners in Massachusetts have initiated a lawsuit that targets Governor Charlie Baker. The plaintiffs who filed the suit started feeling frustrated last month, when Baker instructed non-essential business owners to shut up shop until the COVID-19 crisis is resolved.

Although the governor’s orders did not impact medical cannabis businesses – which were told that they fell into the “essential” category – closures did have a devastating impact on recreational businesses.

Cannabis business closures in Massachusetts: 43 stores shut

As per Baker’s order, a total of 43 recreational cannabis stores in Massachusetts were told to stop serving customers until May 4; at the very earliest. If COVID-19 continues to spread during this time, the shutdown could be extended. Adult-use business owners feel unfairly treated, considering the fact that – unlike them – medical cannabis dispensaries have not been forced to lay off their staff. 

Even for the companies that have plenty of financial backing behind them, shutting up shop means that they may endure significant economic damage for months to come. Smaller businesses are at risk of closing completely; lack of revenue will make it difficult to manage the expenses that come with licensing and launching a physical store. 

The Governor of Massachusetts defended her decision by saying that closures will prevent out-of-state buyers from visiting Massachusetts to purchase legal cannabis; she believes it will reduce the spread of the virus. On the other hand, Massachusetts does have the option of following many other legal states like California, Colorado, Illinois and Nevada. These states are adopting new business practices to maintain health and safety — pick-up, delivery and/or curbside delivery services.

Lawsuit says Baker has inflicted unnecessary problems for non-registered medical cannabis consumers

Filed at the beginning of April in Suffolk Superior Court, the lawsuit claims that Governor Baker is preventing the plant-consuming residents of Massachusetts from accessing lab-tested and regulated bud. This, the plaintiffs say, puts consumers at risk of buying contaminated substances on the black market. Last year, thousands of people across all 50 U.S. states were hospitalized after inhaling Vitamin E Acetate-tainted vape cartridges; the majority of which were sold by unlicensed vendors.

AscendMass, Bloom Brothers, CommCan, MassGrow and The Green Lady Dispensary are the names of the adult-use cannabis stores in Massachusetts that filed the lawsuit. In addition to these companies, an Iraqi veteran and Uxbridge selectman who goes by the name of Stephen Mandile also joined dispensary owners in fighting their collective cases.

The plaintiffs also argued that recreational consumers may not necessarily be using the plant for personal enjoyment, because purchasing from recreational stores relieves consumers of the time and costs associated with enrolling in Massachusetts’ medical cannabis patient program. However, since Baker has forced the closure of adult-use stores statewide, more consumers are begrudgingly registering as qualified patients.

“This includes military veterans and other persons who rely on [cannabis] for medical treatment but are reluctant to access the Commonwealth’s medical [cannabis] program because they fear this might deprive them of federal benefits; and, persons on Nantucket, where The Green Lady Dispensary is the only legal source of [cannabis] products,” the suit reads.

Increase in applications for medical cannabis in Massachusetts likely a repercussion of store closures

Since Governor Baker informed adult-use cannabis business owners that they must halt operations until further notice, an increasing number of residents have been applying for enrollment in the state’s medical cannabis program. From March 23 to April 1, patient registrations in excess of 1,300 were logged by the state’s Cannabis Control Commission. An additional 500 patient registrations were received in the 10-day window prior to March 23.  

This sudden increase in applications suggests that – before COVID-19 impacted recreational cannabis businesses in Massachusetts – a great deal of consumers have likely been buying their bud from recreational sources; so as to avoid the hassle of registering as a patient and to protect their privacy. What’s more, medical cannabis patients in Massachusetts are required to fund the cost of visiting a referral clinic in order to gain acceptance into the program; this usually costs between $150 and $300, whereas there is no fee – aside from the product price tag – to purchase cannabis inside an adult-use store.

Now, unregistered patients are torn between two options: buy from the black market or join Massachusetts’ medical cannabis patient program. Well, if the lawsuit doesn’t finish in favor of the plaintiffs, that is.

 “By classifying adult-use [cannabis] establishments as non-essential, while classifying similar regulated businesses – such as liquor stores and medical [cannabis] dispensaries – as essential, the Executive Orders violate the constitutional rights of the plaintiffs and exceed the Governor’s executive authority,” the suit continues. 

If the plaintiffs are successful in their efforts, the court must provide declaratory and injunctive relief for the recommencement of adult-use cannabis sales in Massachusetts. Perhaps if state lawmakers and Governor Baker consider the fact that valuable cannabis tax revenue is being left on the table, they may rethink the store closures. Meanwhile, the CCC has announced that the medical supply chain will be given a boost through wholesale transfers of recreational cannabis.