Regulators in New York, California, and Ohio have determined that cannabis dispensaries are essential businesses, allowing them to remain open during mandatory closures enacted to help contain the spread of the coronavirus pandemic. The decisions to permit marijuana retailers follow similar moves by government officials in other states struggling to cope with the outbreak.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced at a press conference on Friday morning that all nonessential business in the state would be required to close as of Sunday evening and all residents were being asked to stay home. But cannabis retailers will be allowed to remain open.

Under an executive order announced by the Democratic governor on Wednesday, nonessential businesses were instructed to institute telework policies for their workforces. When asked for clarification, a spokesperson for Cuomo said that “registered organizations in the State’s Medical Marijuana Program are essential medical providers and will be allowed to remain open.”

Cuomo acknowledged as he announced the stay-at-home restrictions that they “will cause disruption. They will cause businesses to close,” he said. “They’ll cause employees to stay at home. I understand that. They will cause much unhappiness. I understand that also.” 

But, he added, “I accept full responsibility. If someone is unhappy, if somebody wants to blame someone, or complain about someone, blame me. There is no one else who is responsible for this decision.”

California First To Order Statewide Lockdown

On Thursday afternoon, Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom of California was the first to issue a statewide closure of nonessential business, which went into effect at midnight. The order also requires residents to stay at home unless necessary and to maintain social distancing when in public. State and local officials have confirmed that recreational and medicinal cannabis retailers will be deemed essential businesses.

Officials in Los Angeles County echoed Newsom, issuing a “safer at home” emergency order for its residents. But to avoid confusion over the status of cannabis dispensaries seen in other jurisdictions including San Francisco, L.A. County noted proactively that marijuana retailers would not have to close.

In Ohio, Republican Gov. Mike DeWine closed all schools statewide and health officials have advised residents to limit trips out of the home. On Sunday, bars and restaurants were ordered to close and three days later, barbershops, nail salons, and other nonessential businesses were added to the required closures. However, state regulators said that medical marijuana dispensaries would be treated the same as pharmacies, allowing them to stay open for business.

The Ohio State Medical Board said on Wednesday that it would not enforce a rule requiring an in-person visit with a physician to obtain a recommendation for medical marijuana. Instead, doctors will be permitted to conduct consultations with their patients via telemedicine appointments in an effort to support social distancing, especially for people who are already ill and may have a compromised immune system. The state also suggested that medical marijuana patients at high risk for contracting the COVID-19 coronavirus designate a caregiver to pick up their medicine, if possible.

Other jurisdictions that have ordered business closures during the continuing coronavirus outbreak including the Netherlands, Michigan, and Illinois have also allowed cannabis dispensaries to remain open during the crisis.

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