Alaska’s marijuana industry isn’t a stranger to uncertainty so when the COVID-19 pandemic reached the 49th state, the industry largely took quick action to protect the safety of customers, employees and their families.
Alaska Marijuana Industry Association President Lacy Wilcox said there’s an overriding sense of duty in the industry to keep things clean and prevent stores from becoming a possible vector for COVID-19. Retail spaces have limited the number of customers who can be inside, instituted regular cleaning schedules, reduced contact and pushed ways for people to order ahead.
“For the most part, I think I’m just really impressed with the industry overall,” Wilcox said. “It’s already a super nerdy labratory-ish industry. We’re sensitive to our environments because we’re farmers. We operate in really sterile environments, it’s not always what you think ... these indoor grows and manufacturing companies is like hospital-grade clean. It’s already a clean environment.”
While some municipalities like Anchorage and Juneau specifically named marijuana businesses as essential in their hunker-down orders, the state’s restrictions on businesses didn’t include such a specific carve-out.
The situation has added uncertainty to the situation, but Department of Health and Social Services Commissioner Adam Crum said at an April 1 briefing on COVID-19 that marijuana businesses were covered by the state’s essential business requirements if they can comply with the social distancing requirements.
“If they can maintain social distancing, limit the number the number of people in the store and maintain proper spacing for as minimal interactions as possible,” he said, “then yes, they would qualify under that.”
Wilcox said it’s still critical for businesses to be responsible and vigilant about the spread of the virus. She and others worry that a single bad actor might ruin it for everyone else. A wide closure, she said, would be disastrous for the legal marijuana industry, cutting off people who rely on cannabis products and allow the black market to flourish.
She also noted that marijuana businesses are in a particularly precarious spot because they generally won’t qualify for any federal financial aid.
“We’re really trying to keep going as long as we can and as safely as we can because there’s no expectation of relief coming our way,” she said.
And that’s because at the end of the day everyone involved in the industry are still regular people with families, friends and loved ones, Wilcox said. They don’t want to get sick or get anyone else sick, either.
“It doesn’t change that we all go home at night. We’re people, too,” she said. “We don’t want to see this spread.”
At the Alaska Marijuana Control Board’s regular April meeting, the board extended the expiration date for marijuana handler cards. It allows any handlers cards that were valid as of March 11, 2020—when the emergency declaration was issued in Alaska—to be valid through March of 2021.
The board declined to take any further actions at that meeting but planned to return for a special meeting on Friday, April 10 to consider additional actions for the industry. The meeting occurred after this magazine went to print, but Wilcox said that she planned on advocating for changes that would further allow the industry to reduce travel when shipping product from wholesalers to retailers and reduce contact with customers.
“Right now, it’s very cumbersome and restrictive,” she said. “We’re asking for some temporary changes to get creative and reduce contact.”
Wilcox said allowing marijuana couriers to check bags containing product instead of having to carry everything on would go a long way to helping ease the burden on the industry. She said currently some shops travel with two to four people in order to transport enough product. Allowing them to check bags, she said, could reduce both the number of people travelling and the frequency of the trips.
She also planned to push to allow couriers to ship their deliveries overnight. Currently, marijuana is only allowed 24 hours to move between a wholesaler and a retailer, making it difficult for rural or coastal communities to collect or deliver product to both Fairbanks and Anchorage in a single trip.
As for retailers, she said planned to advocate for the ability for businesses to do curbside pickup of deliveries so people can order ahead and don’t have to enter retail spaces.
“To be clear, we’re not asking for home delivery,” she said. “That’s too much and the industry is not ready to set that up.”
Matt Buxton is a freelance writer in Anchorage. Comments about this story? Email editor@AlaskaCannabist.com.