Is medical pot essential? Yes, as Florida dispensaries stay open amid pandemic

According to Florida statute, the dispensaries are considered an essential service and are to be treated like retail pharmacies.
Medical marijuana products are on display at Surterra Wellness Center in Tampa in February 2017.
Medical marijuana products are on display at Surterra Wellness Center in Tampa in February 2017.
Published March 24, 2020

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TALLAHASSEE — As Florida municipalities and counties have started to close nonessential businesses in an attempt to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus, they have exempted what are deemed “essential” businesses like healthcare providers, gas stations, banks and news outlets.

But what about medical marijuana treatment centers?

They’ll remain open for business.

According to statute, the dispensaries are considered an essential service and are to be treated like retail pharmacies.

Many of the dispensaries use delivery services to get medication to patients, as well as offer drive-through windows or online ordering and pickup at the stores.

Delivery drivers are also carrying a letter signed by Surgeon General Scott Rivkees that says the business “performs a critical role in providing healthcare delivery services” and authorizes drivers to “travel outside of established curfews during the declared State of Emergency related to COVID-19.”

Parallel, which operates as Surterra Wellness in Florida, has encouraged customers to pre-order products online, has disinfected its stores and has outfitted employees with personal protective equipment like gloves, gowns and masks.

“It’s never been more evident how important cannabis is to improving personal well-being than at this unprecedented time. Our customers’ well-being is the reason we exist,” said Elizabeth Conway, Parallel’s Florida president. “Cannabis is recognized as essential in helping many people seeking relief from anxiety, insomnia and other health symptoms.”

Ramping up delivery

Trulieve, the largest seller of medical marijuana in the state, has increased production at its growing and processing facilities since the virus started spreading in the state. It has also acquired additional delivery vehicles, hired more drivers and set up “mobile hubs” for people to pick up medication.

The company is also offering free home delivery for patients over 65 and reduced rates for others.

Ron Watson, of AltMed, said it’s important the dispensaries remain open because they “are part of the pharmaceutical system.”

“Anywhere from 20% to 30% of recommendations are for anxiety or PTSD,” he said. “Everybody’s anxiety is pretty high right now.”

Watson said the online ordering system is streamlined, and at three of the locations, patients can pick up their products at a drive-through window.

AltMed home delivery is free with purchases of $150 or more and will deliver within a 25-mile radius of the store. It’s been tricky to expand delivery, Watson said, because law requires two drivers in each delivery vehicle.

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Charity Reece, a 51-year-old patient from Hernando County, said delivery has come in handy since even drive-up sales could be dangerous for her. Reece, who has been using medical marijuana to treat her rheumatoid arthritis for the last 18 months, is immunocompromised and prone to infections

“I don’t want to go in and get what I need,” she said. “[Coronavirus] has changed a lot how I do everything.

Doctors that recommend medical marijuana are also treading new ground. According to an emergency order issued by the Department of Health, physicians can use telemedicine to see patients remotely until April 16.

Using telemedicine

Barry Gordon, a former emergency doctor who runs a full-time medical marijuana clinic in Sarasota, said he appreciates that the government understands why access to telemedicine is important for his patient clientele.

“Our goal is to make it as easy and seamless as we can for our debilitated and elderly patients .. the less steps the better,” he said.

Gordon sees about three or four patients daily on a video call, but the majority of the patients still opt for in-person visits.

“Next week may be different,” he added.

Michelle Weiner, a South Florida pain doctor who recommends medical marijuana to patients, said in a text message that she is seeing her patients virtually “all day.” She gets their consent through an electronic form and then uses Zoom to video call with patients.

A lot of her patients medicate to calm their anxiety, help them sleep and support their immune systems.

“It’s working well,” she said. “I’m amazed at how willing they are. It’s enjoyable to see them and them see me.”

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