New Hampshire medical marijuana dispensaries shift delivery method during COVID crisis

Monitor staff
Published: 4/6/2020 7:43:36 AM

When the crisis began, the lines seemed endless. Around 50 people showed up outside Prime Alternative Care Center in Merrimack at 11 a.m., anxious to pick up their prescribed therapeutic cannabis as other health clinics and businesses closed.

But now that it’s become clear that New Hampshire’s five therapeutic cannabis dispensaries aren’t going anywhere, throughout the COVID-19 crisis, the surge has evened out a little.

And the facilities themselves are adapting to the new reality.

The cannabis dispensaries didn’t explicitly show up in the list of essential businesses last week and they haven’t received airtime in the governor’s press conferences.

But the clinics are still open for business, and they’re seeing more demand than ever, managers say.

“Knowing that we’re still here and not having had any significant new orders ... has been helpful at just kind of calming the waters a little,” said Keenan Blum, at Prime ATC. “We are able to keep up with everyone’s need as long as everyone is patient and steady at coming through.”

Still, some dispensaries are dealing better with the new stress than others. While some have been able to retool their workflow to arrange pickup and make services virtual, others are being hit hard.

At Prime ATC in Merrimack, the chief concern is staffing.

Many of the employees at the facility are therapeutic cannabis patients themselves, Blum said. That’s an advantage in good times; it means that they can speak with experience to new patients with specific conditions. But at a time of a deadly virus, it means some have no choice but to stay home.

“When it comes time for a pandemic, we have a lot of immune-compromised staff,” Blun said. “And that makes it really tough.”

Prime ATC has managed to stay on top of its window-side pickups. But with about a third less staff, and no ability to let patients into the main rooms, it’s less equipped to carry out in-person consultations for new patients.

Those face-to-face meetings can be critical to get patients oriented and to adjust dosages as necessary, Blum said.

“That’s somewhere where we’re struggling,” he said. “That’s an hour spent face-to-face normally.”

The facility is also changing the space physically. It’s using HEPA air filtration to extract air from the portion of the building that sees patients, as a precaution. And it’s rearranged its staffing to orient everything around the customer window.

Other facilities are trying their own approaches. The Sanctuary ATC in Conway has a built-in advantage: It sits in a former bank. Now, with authorization from DHHS, the dispensary is distributing cannabis orders via drive-thru.

And Temescal in Dover has an in-between: no drive-thru, but no lines out the front of the facility either. Instead, patients call ahead with a time slot and staff members bring the cannabis out to their car.

“That’s been really helpful,” said Sian Leininger, manager of retail for Temescal’s New Hampshire sites in Dover and Lebanon.

For Leininger, it’s meant more work, but they have managed to stay on top of demand. And consultations have been carried out successfully via phone.

David Shibley, manager of Sanctuary ATC in Plymouth, agreed.

“I’m actually very impressed with how it turned out,” he said. “We’re a well-oiled machine.”

The biggest problem, many say: dispelling fear and confusion among those concerned their medication will be cut off.

“It is a huge change amidst a lot of huge changes for people,” said Leininger. “Everyone’s kind of having their world turned upside down.

She added: “For the most part they’ve just been extremely grateful that we’ve been able to stay open and that they’ve been able to get their therapeutic cannabis.”

As the pandemic has developed, the state has been working with the facilities to help them adapt, including by encouraging phone and online appointments and relaxing the restrictions on curbside pickup and drive-thru.

One change has involved caregivers. Under New Hampshire law, only those licensed as medical marijuana patients or designated caregivers can obtain cannabis from dispensaries.

Presently, there are around 9,500 medical marijuana patients in the state, and around 450 caregivers.

Earlier this month, DHHS waived the fee to register to become a caregiver, hoping to inspire more family members of patients vulnerable to the coronavirus to obtain cannabis to become caregivers themselves.

For Matt Simon, New England political director of the Marijuana Policy Project, an advocacy group, a stronger step could be authorization of delivery. That’s currently forbidden under the state’s rules for therapeutic cannabis, after opposition from police unions and others.

But Simon acknowledged that that could be an expansive political battle, one that doesn’t need to be fought now.

“From a here and now, immediate perspective, getting curbside figured out was the first priority,” he said.

(Ethan DeWitt can be reached at, at (603) 369-3307, or on Twitter at @edewittNH.)

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