The Cannabis Control Commission reports a significant increase in medical marijuana applications last week after Gov. Charlie Baker deemed recreational marijuana shops non-essential businesses in light of the coronavirus pandemic. Meanwhile, the shutdown has left the recreational marijuana industry wondering how it will survive. WGBH Morning Edition host Joe Mathieu spoke with CCC Chairman Steven Hoffman about how the industry is responding to the crisis, and what the Commission is doing to keep employees and patients safe. The transcript below has been edited for clarity.
Joe Mathieu: I'm assuming you're working from home. Is the Commission abiding by any certain protocols during this?
Steven Hoffman: Well, we did shut our offices down, I think, about three weeks ago. We are working remotely. We've got the technology through Microsoft Teams that we can pretty much keep our operations going as usual. We've had public meetings, as you're aware, last Friday [and] we're having another one this coming Thursday. We're processing application [and] patient registration. So as far as that goes, it's business as usual for us, although it's a little strange not seeing my colleagues face to face.
Mathieu: Yeah, I can relate. Governor Baker says he's trying to stop people from gathering and from coming in from out of state with this move to keep recreational stores from opening. Do you worry about the impact this would have on what's still a new industry?
Hoffman: Of course, I'm concerned about the economic impact this is having on a wide range of industries across the commonwealth, certainly including the adult-use industry. The difference, of course, is that because of the conflict between federal and state law, a lot of the benefits that are flowing to small businesses from the CARES Act are not available to this industry, and so I think the economic impact on this industry is disproportionate because of that. So while I respect the governor's decision to deem adult-use as a non-essential business, I am very concerned about the economic impact. We're speaking both to our state legislature as well as our federal legislators about how we can offset that disproportionate impact. We met on Friday, as you know, in a public meeting and talked about what we could do within our regulatory authority to try to ease the impact. I think we've got a few things we can do, but it's something I'm very concerned about.
Mathieu: Can you describe what some of those tools might be? I presume you're worried about dispensaries going out of business.
Hoffman: Absolutely. So we've talked about — and again, these things are in process and we have not finalized them — a couple things. One is where we can either waive, defer or pro-rate fees and license application fees where we can do that. That could help. We also are trying to make sure that on the medical side, which is still open, that we're doing everything we can to ensure supply. So we're looking into whether some of the adult-use cultivators and manufacturers can actually supply onto the medical side of the business. That would require some regulatory changes, but it would accomplish — if we can do it — two things: one is ensure supply for the medical patients, and help some of the adult-use establishments get some revenue during this period of time.
Mathieu: How are you keeping up with the surge in applications for medical cards?
Hoffman: I think we're doing pretty well. It was, I think as you pointed out, a substantial increase. We've always known that a number of people are using the adult-use industry for their medical needs, so this has been going on for a while. But now that adult-use is shuttered, people have no choice but to register with the state, get medical cards and use the medical dispensaries. So this has been going on for a while, but there certainly was an increase in the number of people applying for medical cards. We allowed them to do so with telemedicine so they didn't have to visit their physicians office to get certification. But we've got a lot of staff and we've got everybody kind of focused on the front lines helping people out, so I think we can manage the increased demand.
Mathieu: Will there be a grace period for patients who might not be able to renew or have access to telehealth at this point?
Hoffman: We don't explicitly have a policy of that, but we're day by day. None of us are really able to kind of forecast how long this is going to last, so day by day, we're just trying to help people. And as long as this goes on, we'll ensure that people that need access have access and will ensure that they can get the medicine they need.
Mathieu: There have been reports of some coronavirus infections inside at least one major local dispensary. I wonder if you can talk to us, Chairman Hoffman, about safety procedures for people who work in the growing areas [and] in the testing labs, and whether an infection could lead to an interruption in the system.
Hoffman: Sure. It's a risk, obviously, for every industry that was deemed essential by the governor's order and that is still operating, so as soon as the governor's executive order came down, we started working with the industry. We issued some executive orders about ensuring compliance with the guidance from both the Baker administration and the CDC. We've designated specific hours to allow at-risk groups to come to facilities. We've required employees stay home when they feel sick, cleaning surfaces [and] wearing personal protective equipment. So we're working with the industry to ensure compliance with the governor's executive order, and I'm quite confident that the industry is working as hard as they can to try to ensure the safety of patients, employees and the general public. But this is a scary disease, and it's unfortunately impossible to protect 100 percent. It's what makes it so scary. But the industry is working incredibly hard. We are supporting the governor's executive order, as I said, with our own guidance and requirements, and I'm confident we're doing everything we can, but I'm very concerned about the health and well-being of employees and patients.
Mathieu: Well, of course. We all are and I'm sure that's true for your staff. I have admit, chairman, after talking with you for a couple of minutes, it strikes me that you seem flexible and prepared for a lot of parts to potentially move in the weeks ahead.
Hoffman: I think that's right. As I said, I don't feel [able] to forecast what tomorrow or next week is going to look like, unfortunately, which is one of the scary parts of this. So I think all we can do — and what we are doing — is dealing with the reality of each day, and our concern is solely on the health and well-being of customers, patients, the industry's employees and our own staff. And within the confines of our regulations and the law that created the commission, we're doing everything we possibly can. And we'll continue to monitor things in real time and make whatever changes we need to make.