The national economy may be screeching to a coronavirus-caused halt, but Florida's medical marijuana dispensaries are seeing record sales as patients stockpile cannabis for the long haul and uncertainty ahead.
Cannabis, after all, has long been one of the best cures for cabin fever. But for more than 327,000 medical marijuana cardholders in Florida, cannabis is also an essential medicine, which is why dispensaries can remain open along with pharmacies, grocery stores, gas stations, and even liquor stores.
Last week, medical marijuana sales in Florida increased by almost 40 percent over the previous week. The Florida Department of Health says 2,274 pounds sold from March 13 to 19, when schools and stores began shutting down nationwide. That is the most sold since the state's medical marijuana program began in 2017.
The same pattern is seen across the country. From March 13 to March 16, cannabis sales shot up 28 percent compared to the previous week, according to a report by BDS Analytics, a Colorado-based market research firm for the global cannabinoid industry.
"We saw a combination of an increase in traffic and people purchasing more," says CEO Roy Bingham.
The increase makes sense. From a medicinal point of view, cannabis — and especially CBD — has proven effective in reducing anxiety. And from a recreational standpoint, sales of alcohol and cigarettes — other stress relievers — have shot up during the same time.
As the nation's economy collapses with no end in sight, cannabis sales figures indicate it might be as recession-proof as booze and cigarettes were during the Great Recession.
Dr. Michelle Weiner, a South Florida cannabis doctor with offices in Kendall and Coconut Grove, says sales have risen mainly because people are under growing stress.
"Patients are stocking up on their medications because they know they are not able to easily leave their houses," Weiner says. "They are also more anxious about the unknown and are using cannabis to calm themselves while they homeschool their kids or learn how to cope with potential decreases in wages from hours lost at work."
Claus Alfaro, a 35-year-old medical marijuana patient in Miami, says he bought extra cannabis products as the virus began making headlines.
"I purchased about two-and-a-half times my normal purchases," he tells New Times. "I stocked up on all the flowers and concentrates I use."
Alfaro uses cannabis to treat pain from a knee injury as well as to manage stress and anxiety. He normally buys a two-week supply, but says he has enough marijuana after his last purchase to last at least two months.
Alfaro works in medical sales and usually spends his days meeting doctors at their offices. These days, medical marijuana keeps him from overthinking about things he cannot control, including the possibility of losing his job.
"The economy has been hit so hard and a lot of people are holding back on their purchases and spending," he says.
Public relations exec JennyLee Molina is another cardholder who stocked up on cannabis as a precaution. Earlier this month, when businesses deemed nonessential were ordered closed, she rushed to a dispensary, fearing it would be shut down, too.
"A week or two is usually what I buy at a time but in this case, I bought enough for two months," she says.
Molina is the president of JLPR, a Miami-based PR company that represents several South Florida restaurants that can no longer serve sit-down meals. As a result, her clients can't pay for her services.
"I lost half of my client base in a week," she says. "Anxiety sometimes gets the best of us in these situations, so I'm grateful I have medical marijuana, CBD, or whatever it may be at my disposal."
While there's no question cannabis is a bona fide medical essential for many, the Wall Street Journal's editorial board on Monday published an opinion piece calling California's decision to keep the dispensaries open "amusing if it weren't so dangerous."
"The long-term effects of pot on mental and physical well-being haven't been well-studied, but research shows that cannabis smoke affects the lungs the way tobacco does," the piece states. "People who are immuno-suppressed or have pre-existing respiratory conditions are most likely to get severely ill with coronavirus."
Apparently, nobody told the Journal’s editorial board that cannabis can be consumed without smoking it. Considering that COVID-19 is a respiratory illness, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), which has advocated for cannabis legalization since 1970, issued new recommendations for patients to "either limit or altogether avoid their exposure to combustive smoke of any kind."
Weiner also recommends using edibles and tinctures over inhalants, saying smoking can increase the risk of acute bronchitis.
The warning against smoking does not concern Eric Santiago, a medical marijuana patient in the Florida Keys. Santiago works at a Jet Ski rental company but has not been allowed to work for more than a week. Normally, he smokes a half-ounce of weed after returning home from work. But now that he's home all day, he's smoking twice that much.
"It's just kind of boring, sitting at home with nothing to do," he says. "If I end up catching it, then I'll reassess my situation [with smoking]."
Fortunately, the dispensaries have been keeping up with demand and say they will continue to operate throughout the crisis. For now, they are encouraging patients to order online for pickups or delivery instead of just walking into the dispensary.
"We remain committed to preventing and slowing the spread of COVID-19 while continuing to serve as an essential service in our communities," a spokesperson from Surterra stated in an email.
Trulieve dispensaries remain open with their normal business hours.
"We have implemented new procedures to help our patients during this difficult time with special store hours for immunocompromised patients, mobile hubs, additional delivery vehicles, and in-store health and safety protocols," CEO Kim Rivers said in a statement.
Existing patients whose doctors' recommendations have expired are now allowed to meet with them through video chat — the Florida surgeon general temporarily lifted the rule requiring in-person consultations.