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Dispensaries, Dumpsters and Drive-Thru: The Road to Buying Weed Curbside

Customers wait to pick up marijuana from a to-go window outside of Higher Grade dispensary in Denver.EXPAND
Customers wait to pick up marijuana from a to-go window outside of Higher Grade dispensary in Denver.
Herbert Fuego

I bought some weed next to an alley-side dumpster this week. The purchase wasn't just legal; it was an essential need, according to the State of Colorado.

As part of a statewide effort to curb the spread of coronavirus, Governor Jared Polis has forced all recreational marijuana sales curbside until mid-April. (Medical dispensaries can remain open.) But curbside confinement is better than closing for business, which many retail operations that were deemed non-essential had to do earlier this week.

While Polis's move allows pot shops to stay open as other businesses close their doors, like just about every other outfit deemed essential, dispensaries are still learning how to effectively operate during an unprecedented time. Curbside takeout and paying for weed online were both illegal in Colorado until the governor's executive order issued March 22, leaving dispensaries to figure out what, exactly, going "curbside" entails.

Several days after Polis's order, the state Marijuana Enforcement Division sent out a memo clarifying that curbside dispensary sales allow drive-thru, walk-up, online and over-the-phone ordering, but customers must receive their orders outside of the store, whether on the sidewalk in front of the dispensary or in its parking lot. And what if a dispensary has neither? Dumpster time...as long as that dumpster is on dispensary property.

I made my nostalgic, dumpster-side purchase on the morning of March 24, the first day that pot shops had to go curbside. The MED's guidelines weren't sent until around 2 p.m. that day, leaving plenty of dispensaries scrambling to comply. In those guidelines, the MED recommends that stores without parking or sidewalk space "consider making temporary modifications" to facilitate transactions within the new requirements, such as "temporary modifications" to host customers "at the immediate entryway of the store."

Now that the rules are clearer, I doubt I'll get more dumpster time.

But buying weed next to a dumpster wasn't even the weirdest experience that day — actually, it's still pretty normal in cities that don't have well over 100 pot shops. At another dispensary, I was required to call in my order or walk up to a newly installed to-go window, order and then wait for my weed. Because there were already three customers waiting next to the pick-up window, I called in my order, believing that would save time. But while that might be how it works when you're buying a meal, it doesn't for an eighth of Skywalker OG.

After waiting nearly twenty minutes to hear that my order was ready, I approached the now-empty pick-up window and asked for my buds, only to be told that I couldn't pay for my order until it came through from "downstairs," also known as the desk in a room next to the pick-up window, and that it "typically takes thirty minutes." I asked why I couldn't just cancel the call-in purchase and make one at the window, and the answer was a shrug.

"Sorry. We're still getting a handle on this," the drive-thru budtender said. I could tell by the beaten look in her eyes that I wasn't the first person who'd heard the apology.

After getting the MED note, some stores closed for a day to regroup, while others figured it out on the fly or were simply better equipped for the transition.

Pre-ordering marijuana was legal before the virus hit, with many stores already using such services. On the first day of mandatory curbside, The Health Center had a pick-up table (and armed security guard) in the parking lot to hand out online orders, while Euflora's dispensary on South Gun Club Road in Aurora, a former Bank of the West branch, has converted the bank's three drive-thru lanes into pick-up lanes for customers. The Joint by Cannabis and Higher Grade's Elati Street location have also built new to-go windows, while Good Chemistry, Apothecary Farms and many other stores have designated parking spots for customer waiting and pick-ups.

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Line separation will likely be an ongoing obstacle for stores in areas with a lot of foot traffic and little parking, such as East Colfax Avenue and downtown Denver. Other challenges include wait times and getting change, since most dispensary purchases are conducted in cash owing to marijuana's federal prohibition.

However, improvements to the overall customer experience could come from this. Periods of forced evolution — like war, economic recession or pandemics — tend to produce changes that stick around long after the struggle is over, and dispensaries won't walk away from this unaltered.

Once stay-home orders are lifted and we're allowed to shop outside of our homes and cars and walk-up windows again, maybe the state will keep the curbside option, giving customers more opportunities to skip the waiting room. Dispensaries are being forced to update their menus with more accuracy and frequency, giving customers and self-medicating patients a better window into what options they'll have before driving over to spend money. Maybe those habits will take hold, too.

Don't expect this to be a joyride, but there could be some worthwhile stops along the way.

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