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Updated: May 4, 2020

COVID-19 mandates clear red tape for CT’s medical marijuana industry

Photo | Contributed Fine Fettle dispensary has boosted safety measures during the COVID-19 pandemic, including requiring workers to wear face masks.
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Connecticut’s eight-year-old medical marijuana program has been tightly regulated from the start, but the coronavirus pandemic has forced the state to ease some restrictions, which could change the way the industry operates long term.

Through various executive orders, Gov. Ned Lamont has allowed adult patients to purchase cannabis products via curbside pickup and authorized physicians or APRNs to certify patients for the program using telehealth services, which have been gaining traction among providers in-state. Certain dispensary/laboratory employees are also able to work at multiple locations under common ownership.

Meantime, dispensaries are encouraging or mandating patients to pre-order online, or by phone, to limit in-store foot traffic.

Some in the industry are also hopeful Connecticut will follow other states that have relaxed rules on product home delivery and conducting online transactions. (Cannabis sales in Connecticut can only be made in-person.)

While the rule changes are temporary during the state’s public health emergency, local dispensaries and growers expect some new guidelines to stick around long after the pandemic subsides, which would help broaden patient access — and potentially industry sales — to flowers, vape oils, edibles and other cannabis products.

“Even if we return to normal soon, I think there’s going to be a higher volume of online orders vs. in-store orders,” said Dennis So, a manager at the Fine Fettle dispensary in Newington. “It’s beneficial for all parties involved because it allows us to be able to get the orders prepared ahead of time and speed up transactions.”

So said patients are also adapting to new procedures set by Fine Fettle, which include moving consultations for first-time patients to phone or videoconferencing formats. Fine Fettle’s pharmacists have also been using virtual appointments to discuss patients’ medical history, care goals and to prescribe medications.

Fine Fettle, which operates two of Connecticut’s 17 dispensaries in Newington and Willimantic, is also asking patients to consolidate their orders, and is only allowing a maximum of three people in its stores at any given time to limit potential exposure.

So said he expects the social-distancing guidelines to help streamline sales and train patients to self educate on products.

“There will be a major change as patients may be more empowered right now and have more independence on placing orders,” So said.

HBJ Photos | Steve Laschever
(From left) Christine Brevigleiri, Nicole Leja and Tim Granhan, of Curaleaf Connecticut in Simsbury, are trailblazing new careers in Connecticut’s medical marijuana industry.

New norms

Nicole Leja, president of Curaleaf Connecticut, is also optimistic efforts to limit the spread of COVID-19 will spur market innovations in sales, sanitation and staffing procedures.

The coronavirus has forced Curaleaf, one of Connecticut’s four licensed growers, to shift its cultivation strategy and safety measures to protect both patients and 70 full- and part-time staff in Simsbury.

In particular, the national producer-vendor is staggering workers between two, 12-hour shifts to limit interactions. It hired eight temporary workers to fill any workforce gaps on so-called “A” and “B” teams, she said.

Curaleaf also requires staff — none of whom have been furloughed or laid off during the pandemic — handling cannabis products to wear gloves and masks, and increase deep cleanings.

[Read more: Recreational marijuana legalization efforts in limbo]

So far, there have not been any confirmed cases of COVID-19 at marijuana growing facilities in-state, according to the Department of Consumer Protection, which regulates the medical marijuana industry.

Leja said Curaleaf has implemented similar safety measures at its recently acquired Arrow Alternative Care dispensaries in Hartford, Milford and Stamford. The dispensaries, like many grocery stores, have floor markings to ensure patients waiting in line maintain social distance.

Curaleaf, the operator of nearly 60 dispensaries nationwide, is also seizing on curbside pickup sales by pushing all pre-orders, which are ready within 90 minutes, to be made online or by phone.

Curaleaf, for the first time, is also allowing debit-card purchases. The move to allow cashless transactions comes as Connecticut dispensaries still largely lack access to a bank checking account because of federal rules meant to block potential elicit activity in the industry.

“That is probably something we will keep in place after this,” Leja said of cashless transactions. “I think this will change how businesses conduct future transactions as well.”

Photo | Connecticut Pharmaceutical Solutions
Connecticut Pharmaceutical Solutions' cultivation facility in Portland.

Portland marijuana grower Connecticut Pharmaceutical Solutions (CTPharma) is also ramping up safety precautions related to hygiene and social distancing, and is encouraging people to stay home without penalty if they feel symptomatic, according to CEO Tom Schultz.

Schultz, who is in the midst of moving the company to a larger, 216,632-square-foot facility in Rocky Hill by summer 2021, said DCP toured its existing complex to ensure it complied with new COVID-19 procedures.

DCP, he said, advised CTPharma and other growers to be prepared for worst-case scenarios, including stepping up production if a competing facility is exposed to the coronavirus.

“We understand the DCP has many legitimate concerns right now, so we just have to be patient in terms of how things move,” Schultz said. “In Connecticut, I am very comfortable with describing our industry as the best in the nation.”

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