Cannabis Industry Warily Watches Virus

Sandra Sorensen, a medical cannabis patient in Los Alamos, has a compromised immune system and suffers from seizures, but she’s not ready to let fears of coronavirus force her into hiding—at least not yet.

She’s washing her hands a lot and keeping a 10-day supply of cannabis medications on hand, but she helps several other medical cannabis patients in the area who can’t leave their homes, and she says she doesn’t want to abandon them. On Wednesday, New Mexico announced its first four confirmed cases of Covid-19, the pandemic disease that’s creeping across the globe and the United States. Sorensen says she’s still feeling pretty calm, but she’s also worried about how the disease is shutting down some international commerce, and that it could also disrupt the cannabis supply.

“I’m definitely ready if something was to happen,” Sorensen says. “Cannabis is the only medication I use, and I do suffer from very serious seizures. I’ve talked to some growers, and I think a lot of people are worried about vape cartridges in particular, because the components come from China.”

Duke Rodriguez, president of Ultra Health, tells SFR his company decided to advance order a three-month stock of supplies for vape cartridges and other packaging that comes from China, so it’s fairly well supplied on that side of the equation. However, he added that if patients try to stock up with a month’s worth of cannabis medications—which the CDC has suggested for nearly all types of medications—the state could run into a shortage.

According to Rodriguez’ math, New Mexico, which reported 82,147 card holders at the end of February, now has more patients than neighboring Colorado, which has 81,871. Colorado has 286,000 plants in production with growers around the state. New Mexico, in contrast, has about 26,000 in production.

“So for a 30-day supply in New Mexico, we’d have to have 13,862 pounds of product,” Rodriguez says. “But the entire state sold 23,000 to 24,000 pounds through all of last year. Our fear is not completely based on coronavirus, but on the low canopy policy by the Department of Health.”

Rodriguez, who has sued the state over the plant cap and other gripes with the program, adds that the company has seen a bump in sales in February and early March, indicating that some patients are probably trying to stock up.

“February was our biggest month ever, and that was a little bit of a surprise,” Rodriguez said. “And March has continued that trend upward.”

Lyra Barron, owner of Santa Fe’s Fruit of the Earth dispensary, said she has seen some New Mexico growers report problems getting packaging from overseas, but she uses environmentally-friendly packing made in the United States, so that’s not an issue for her.

So far, things have been pretty normal at the shop, but on Tuesday morning she decided to meet with workers to talk about how to prevent the spread of COVID-19 through more hand washing and cleaning in preparation for cases appearing in the state.

“We’re still wondering what the impact is going to be, but we haven’t seen much yet,” Barron said. “One thing that’s impacting me is that I do a lot of herbal tinctures, and the herbs I buy from all over the world—I’ve been trying to stock up in case of shortages. I also have a natural health store next door, and zinc lozenges, vitamin C, we’re stocking up on those for people who want a health boost.”

The NewMexicann encouraged patients via email late Wednesday to place orders online, then wait in their cars for curbside delivery outside the store if they were feeling sick.

Another big issue for the dispensary industry is the cash nature of the business. Cash is notoriously dirty, often carrying traces of fecal matter and cocaine, and it’s just as easy for coronavirus to hitch a ride from somebody’s dirty hand into the cash drawer.

That’s why Rodriguez said Ultra Health dispensary workers have a long-standing policy of wearing gloves.

“We’ve been in cash since the inception of this industry,” Rodriguez said. “Cash is always a risk factor. Our workers wear gloves and also use an ample amount of hand sanitizer.”

If Ultra Health has several workers call out sick, assuming the epidemic spreads to New Mexico, Rodriguez said he thinks he will be able to keep all 20 of the company’s dispensaries open by shifting staff from nearby stores to cover shifts. The company has 250 total employees in New Mexico.

For many medical cannabis patients who suffer from immune system issues, the drill for coronavirus is actually quite familiar. Flu or even a bad cold can easily kill immunocompromised patients, so many are used to hunkering down with a month or more worth of food, supplies and medications every winter, said Bridget Dandaraw-Seritt, founder of the Canna-Patient Resource Connection in Colorado Springs, where a handful of coronavirus cases have been confirmed.

“If you’re a patient, this is on your radar and has been for some time,” Dandaraw-Seritt said. “You probably have all the stocks you need, and if you haven’t yet then you should get them. That’s 30 days worth of food, drugs and supplies.”

Like other medical cannabis patients up that way along I-25, she’s stocked up and has been sheltering in place for about a week, reducing any non-essential personal contact. The hoarding of toilet paper, alcohol swabs and hand sanitizer by the general public is hurting medical cannabis patients in her area, she added, because most live on fixed incomes and they just don’t have the money to stock up. So when they go shopping and they can’t get what they need, they end up at greater risk.

“Alcohol pads, hand sanitizer, those things we really need in our community and we can’t find them right now,” Dandaraw-Seritt said. “So unless somebody who’s stocking up helps us with charity, we may have problems.”

As for patients or others who don’t have immune system issues and aren’t sheltering from the threat, Dandaraw-Seritt says it’s wise right now to use some basic germ-spreading precautions. Part of that is don’t share joints or pipes – give each person their own. But also because coronavirus impacts the lungs, she suggested that regular cannabis users consider switching to edibles, pills, tinctures or other products that aren’t directly inhaled while the disease is spreading.

“Right now unless you really need to inhale for some reason, you should go to non-inhaled cannabis, because inhaled cannabis does weaken the lungs,” Dandaraw-Seritt said. “No more puff, puff pass.”