COVID-19 and Cannabis: Are Dispensaries “Essential?”

As the United States continues to take action to limit the spread of COVID-19 and flatten the curve of infection, the closure of non-essential businesses by numerous state governments has left residents wondering whether their local dispensary will be deemed an “essential business” and remain open.

At least 17 states, 14 of which have cannabis programs, have issued statewide shelter rules and closed all non-essential businesses. Of the 14 states, a dozen have issued orders allowing some companies that operate in the cannabis industry to remain open.

Dispensaries in states with medicinal cannabis programs have generally received favorable treatment.  Presently, no states have restricted patients’ access to medical cannabis, and some state governors and municipalities have issued orders deeming medicinal cannabis operations essential.  This means that for the time being, patients will have access to their local dispensaries.  Even so, businesses must still abide by state restrictions on travel and occupancy requirements.

Recreational cannabis businesses have received mixed treatment.  Currently, Oregon, California, Colorado, Illinois, and Washington have all issued orders deeming recreational dispensaries essential businesses allowing them to operate under state-issued guidelines. Colorado and Nevada have not declared recreational cannabis businesses “essential,” but also have yet to issue an in-place shelter rule, and so for the time being all recreational dispensaries remain operational.  Notably, last week Massachusetts became the first state to deem recreational dispensaries a non-essential business.  Louisiana and Delaware have not directly addressed marijuana businesses as “essential” in their shut-down orders, though they are permitting them to remain open for the time being.

As more states implement in-place shelter rules, expect continuing changes to the ways patients and recreational users access their cannabis.