March 24 (UPI) -- Medical marijuana dispensaries on some states' "essential services" lists, like grocery stores and pharmacies, are adjusting to new systems as local governments declare measures to slow the spread of COVID-19.
Dispensaries are rushing to figure out ways to get medicinal cannabis to patients, some of whom are immunocompromised or at-risk for coronavirus.
"What's important is that cannabis is considered medicine, and people need access to medicine during this time," said Chanda Macias, of the Washington, D.C.,-based National Holistic Healing Center, and a board member of the National Cannabis Roundtable advocacy group.
Medical marijuana users often fall into in health categories, including cancer patients, those with multiple sclerosis, post-traumatic stress disorder and chronic pain, Macias said. Her advocacy group is pushing for quicker licensing of caregivers authorized to pick up medical marijuana or work for multiple patients.
Dispensaries on state "essential businesses" lists are developing protocols for minimizing risk of COVID-19, said Ellen Komp, deputy director of California NORML, a marijuana advocacy organization.
Industry groups are encouraging dispensaries to regularly close for sanitizing and to limit the number of people in the store at one time. Dispensaries are asked to minimize their displays and stop customer handling of products.
"They're using social-distancing guidelines for grocery stores, and not letting people smell the containers anymore," Komp said.
Because of federal banking prohibitions, most dispensary transactions have to be conducted with cash, which is a germ-spreader, Komp said. Some dispensaries require employees to wear gloves when touching cash and ask them to use hand sanitizers, she said.
In Illinois, medical marijuana dispensaries are temporarily permitted to offer curbside service for licensed med marijuana patients and their caregivers, according to the Department of Financial and Professional Regulation.
Patients or caregivers must scan identification cards and pay cash on the sidewalk outside the dispensaries, a notice from the state regulations department said.
Recreational dispensaries are not included in the order. Delivery is not permitted, Illinois' regulatory agency said.
"Our top priority is to minimize the risk of and protect as many people from exposure to COVID-19," Toi Hutchinson, senior adviser for cannabis control, said in a statement Thursday.
In California, where recreational and medical cannabis are sold from the same dispensaries, local health departments are evaluating cannabis county by county, Komp said.
For example, San Francisco County health authorities backed down from closing cannabis dispensaries as non-essential businesses, issuing a clarification that "Cannabis is an essential medicine for many San Francisco residents."
The California Bureau of Cannabis Control said Friday that "licensees may continue to operate at this time so long as their operations comply with local rules and regulations."
In some states in which only medical marijuana is legal, drive-through and delivery options are permitted.
For example, at Florida's AltMed's 18 dispensaries, patients picking up medical marijuana may be asked to check in and then wait in their cars, according to the company's website. Delivery is permitted for online or phone orders.
Patients are encouraged to use drive-through facilities at some locations. Dispensaries will be closed Sundays for deep-cleaning and sanitizing, the company said.
Existing Florida medical marijuana patients are permitted to renew their doctor recertifications remotely via telemedicine instead of in person, according to the Florida Surgeon General's office.
In New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo said the state's registered medical marijuana dispensaries are "essential medical providers and will [be] allowed to remain open." The governor's New York State "on PAUSE" order Friday included medical providers as essential businesses.
The New York Department of Health issued rules that allow dispensaries to sell from their doorways and allow deliveries to be temporarily expanded. Patients are to be encouraged to arrive by appointment.
"This is a fluid situation that is changing day by day," said Washington, D.C.-based Justin Strekal, political director for NORML.
"We hope those who consume cannabis for therapeutic purposes can continue to get access to medicine during this time."