"Gonna have to stop you right there, man. We're practicing social distancing today."
That's how John Andrle welcomed a customer outside of his Denver dispensary, L'Eagle, on March 17. The pot shop owner was allowing one customer into each of the waiting and shopping areas at a time, requiring them to stay at least six feet away from each other (unless they were together) and staffers in an effort to limit any potential spread of coronavirus, or COVID-19.
Andrle says that he and his wife, Amy, made the decision to implement longer lines and individual shopping last week after the virus's presence increased in Colorado. (They also made the decision to offer discounted product to bartenders and workers in the food-service industry.) While the store isn't seeing as many customers right now because of government calls for people to stay home, L'Eagle and many other dispensaries around town are seeing an increase in the amount of marijuana products that each customer is buying.
"Some places are just letting people in, as if it were a free-for-all at a grocery store. Here, it's just one person inside at a time," he says. "We're seeing, like, 40 percent less people, but they're spending around 50 percent more money."
Few stores are implementing distancing rules as L'Eagle has, but the majority have taken steps to further sanitize and protect their staff and customers from the virus, such as prohibiting customers from smelling flower and requiring employees to wear gloves while in the store. Although the health practices may vary from store to store, the dispensaries do have one thing in common: increased sales over the past week.
"I can tell you we had constantly higher traffic in the stores, to the point where waiting rooms were full most of the time. For a time that is in between holidays, that's pretty unusual," says Peter Marcus, communications director for Terrapin Care Station. "People are probably thinking ahead."
Dispensary employees largely reported business as usual last week, but as the government's coronavirus reports became more serious, marijuana users started to treat the plant more like toilet paper and less like Friday night feel-good. After Denver restaurants and bars were ordered to close for on-site consumption for two months on March 16 and all restaurants, bars gyms, theaters and casinos in the state were shut down until April 16, people are starting to panic-buy.
But there's a limit to how much dispensary shoppers can panic-buy per day: one ounce of marijuana or eight grams of concentrate, or edibles containing no more than 800 milligrams of THC.
"Our sales are booming," explains Chuck Blackton, owner of Verde dispensaries in Boulder and Denver, as well as a wholesale marijuana cultivation. "We're not running out, but we're just slammed."
Dispensaries should have enough flower to make it through summer, according to store representatives, although several edibles vendors have been reporting shorter supplies, Andrle notes.
But as other Colorado businesses are required to close, people wonder whether dispensaries will be able to remain open...which leads to more bulk buying.
Governor Jared Polis hasn't determined which businesses are essential or non-essential in the event of any statewide closure, Marcus notes, but there is some precedent.
"We're preparing for anything, following CDC guidelines and whatever the state tells us in terms of directives," he says. "In Pennsylvania, a governor executive order deemed [medical marijuana dispensaries] were no different than pharmacies. We do have some precedent in this issue, but we're prepared to take whatever direction the state gives."
There's precedent in the state, too. When Summit County officials ordered all non-essential businesses to close on March 16 to limit the spread of coronavirus within the county, dispensaries were deemed essential businesses and allowed to remain open.
"If a business considers itself essential, then it will separate its customers and quarantine if it has to," Andrle says.
Keep Westword Free... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Denver with no paywalls.