Deemed ‘essential’ in Washington, rec weed gets looser rules amid outbreak

With manufacturing and tourism jobs in peril on the Olympic peninsula, longtime cannabis company owner Bethany Rondeaux recently increased hours for three of her part-time employees.

“Half of my staff’s spouses have lost their jobs,” said Rondeaux, owner of Falcanna, an indoor growing business that’s been operating since November 2015.

Falcanna and hundreds of other marijuana businesses, from farm to store shelf, have been deemed essential by Washington Gov. Jay Inslee and may remain open amid social-distancing orders designed to stem the spread of the coronavirus, even as other consumer goods have been forced to shutter.

Those in the industry say they’re relieved to stay open, even as they try to answer concerns from employees and customers alike about shopping safely for a product that has yet to weather a nationwide recession.

“We are a small business, we’re not owned by multiple people,” said Justin Peterson, who owns three marijuana retail stores under the Cinder name in the Spokane area. “We’re not owned by corporations. This is my family’s only source of income.”

The $2 trillion spending package that Congress approved Friday contains billions of dollars intended to help small businesses and give banks liquidity to extend loans. But none of that money can flow to Rondeaux or Peterson, or any of the hundreds of businesses that generated $395 million in taxes for the state of Washington last year, due to marijuana’s classification as illegal under federal law.

Justin Strekal, political director at the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, or NORML, said the government’s assistance to other businesses as part of the relief package laid bare what he called “discriminatory treatment” of state-sanctioned cannabis businesses. But he praised state officials across the country for taking steps to temporarily remove regulations making it harder to sell cannabis during the pandemic, even if he first objected to those rules.

“We’re seeing regulators move with great speed to get rid of arbitrary rules and regulations around the regulated cannabis market, including home delivery, curbside pickup and telemedicine,” Strekal said.

The Washington Liquor and Cannabis Board approved emergency rules through at least the end of April, allowing stores to sell curbside to customers provided certain restrictions are met. That includes a requirement everyone in a vehicle be 21 with valid ID. Regulators also are allowing minor children into licensed cannabis businesses until April 30, in recognition of the closure of schools and potential lack of daycare options.

That change is one Johnny Vanella, an outdoor farmer in Goldendale, Washington, would like to see made permanent.

“You’re not allowed to have your kids on your site, and it forces the family apart,” said Vanella, who has three children who are now out of school.

The prohibition on children in, or even near, their cannabis plants, which are enclosed by a fence as required under state law and under constant video surveillance, has kept the family from building a home near their business, Vanella said.

“I know there’s no real danger. No real danger other than any other kind of farm,” he said.

Crystal Oliver, executive director of the Washington Sungrowers Industry Association, a trade group, said members already were requesting a lifting of the minor children ban prior to this year’s legislative session. She sent a letter on behalf of her group to the Liquor and Cannabis Board earlier this month, citing the closure of schools as a reason to temporarily change the rules.

“One of the perks of being a small business owner is you can bring your kids with you,” Oliver said. “That hasn’t been true for the cannabis industry.”

Chris Marr, a former state legislator and member of the Liquor Cannabis Board who consults with industry members, said the LCB deserved credit for listening to industry concerns in the midst of the virus response.

“The industry’s weathering it relatively well,” Marr said.

He noted there’s no playbook for how to weather a recession for many of these businesses, as legal marijuana wasn’t established when markets crashed and unemployment soared following the burst of the housing bubble in 2008.

National reports have indicated sales skyrocketed in the days leading up to orders closing businesses. That was also true in Washington, Marr said, especially for sales of edible products. Marr surmised that might be because parents did not want to be smoking in front of their homebound children.

Peterson and Rondeaux said they saw significant sales earlier this month, particularly orders of larger quantity products. That indicates consumers were stocking up over fears pot shops may also be shuttered, Peterson said.

“I think a lot of people were concerned we were going to be closing entirely,” Peterson said. “Last week we saw a massive increase in sales.”

Rondeaux said her orders for eighths and ounces have never been greater than in the past few weeks. A former medical grower, she said the one thing that’s been constant in the cannabis industry has been change, a truism that’s been reinforced by the virus outbreak.

“That’s really not new if you haven’t been in this space,” she said. “We were already on the edge of our seat for so long that it just becomes where you sit.”