BOSTON — Marijuana advocates are asking the state to reopen recreational pot shops, arguing that prolonged closures will decimate the new industry and are unfair.
Pot shops were closed by Gov. Charlie Baker on March 24 along with a wide swath of other “nonessential” businesses as part of efforts to prevent spread of COVID-19.
On Tuesday, Baker extended the executive order until May 4 and kept pot shops on the list of businesses that will be not be allowed to reopen. Medical marijuana shops will be allowed to remain open.
Advocates decried the move, pointing out that Baker’s directive designates package stores as “essential businesses” and allows them to remain open during the state of emergency. They point out that other states, including California and Washington, have allowed recreational sales to continue during even more restrictive shutdowns.
“Massachusetts is an outlier on this,” said Jim Borghesani, a marijuana industry consultant who worked on the 2016 ballot question that legalized sales and possession of recreational marijuana. “Gov. Baker has imposed less-restrictive, stay-at-home conditions but a more restrictive cannabis policy than these other states. It is difficult to reconcile the dissimilar approach.”
Roughly two-thirds of adult-use recreational customers buy cannabis to relieve symptoms but are not registered as medical marijuana patients, including veterans, Borghesani said.
Because marijuana is illegal under federal law, pot shops will not qualify for low-interest loans through the U.S. Small Business Association to help them stay afloat.
“This industry is just getting up and running, and many of these businesses are not able to access traditional sources of financing from the banks,” said David Torrisi, president of the Commonwealth Dispensary Association, which represents marijuana retailers. “So a lot of people are going to lose a lot of money.”
Torrisi said marijuana retailers had already taken steps to enforce social distancing protocols in line with local government directives.
“Obviously, public health must come first, but we strongly believe that we can meet all the (Centers for Disease Control) guidelines, even more so than package stores,” he said.
Advocates say the prolonged closure will also mean a loss of tax revenue at a time when the state is expected to take a major hit on tax collections needed to keep the government running. Marijuana sales had topped $157 million from Jan. 1 until the shops were closed, according to the state Cannabis Control Commission.
Baker has defended his inclusion of recreational marijuana businesses in the shutdown order, saying the move is aimed at preventing further spread of the virus.
He argues that allowing pot shops to remain open would draw customers from other Northeast states, given that Massachusetts is the only state in the region that allows retail sales.
It would also conflict with his recently issued travel advisory that urges visitors coming into the state to self-quarantine for at least 14 days.
“There is tons of evidence that if we make recreational marijuana available as an essential business, we are going to have to deal with the fact that people are going to come here from all over the Northeast,” Baker said at a recent press briefing. “That will create issues for us with respect to the fundamental issue we are trying to solve for here, which is to stop the spread.”
Still, marijuana advocates say the governor has the authority to limit pot sales to Massachusetts residents only.
“I don’t buy that argument — the governor clearly has the power to restrict recreational marijuana sales, just like we do for medical sales,” Borghesani said. “Instead, he just made a capricious decision and shut them down.”
Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites.