As Massachusetts begins to follow Governor Charlie Baker’s reopening plan, marijuana dispensaries in Berkshire County are returning to recreational sales for the first time in two months.
Back in January 2019, Brandon Pollock thought he was in for the biggest opening day of his life when Theory Wellness became the first dispensary to sell recreational marijuana in Berkshire County, in Great Barrington. Now, as the state prepares to allow recreational sales for the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic took hold in March, the company’s CEO is bracing for another unprecedented opening.
“The entire customer experience will be different starting Monday," Pollock told WAMC. "We’ll be doing curbside pickup. We will have very limited interactions between customers and staff, and then between different staff members as well, there’ll social distancing, a lot of sanitizing, full PPE for all the staff.”
One of Pollock’s concerns is winning over his customer base all over again.
“People continued to purchase cannabis in the last few months, and doing so on the black market is always kind of an interesting form of competition for the legal industry," said the CEO. "So what we still are not sure of is how many people will come back yet again from the black market to the legal market.”
In its first year, Theory Wellness banked over $40 million from around 200,000 unique customers. One thing Pollock and the burgeoning industry are fairly sure of is how much has been lost in the past two months.
“Before the shutdown, our industry was doing – we were, I want to say, around $70 million, $80 million a month in revenue," he told WAMC. "So you can extrapolate that out of a couple months – so at least $100 million in revenue did not come in collectively in the industry in Massachusetts. And we represent a somewhat decent portion of that.”
The loss of recreational sales hit the cannabis industry, but also the municipalities that house them.
“In the two months that we were closed, we probably missed out on close to anywhere from $1.5 million to $2 million in gross revenue," said Brendan McKee, one of the owners of Silver Therapeutics, a recreational marijuana dispensary in Williamstown. “That’s gross revenue, so that’s revenue from the store and the 20% adult use tax.”
Host community Great Barrington saw at least $2 million come into its coffers from Theory Wellness’s recreational sales in 2019.
Some Berkshire marijuana businesses adapted to the crisis.
“I think one of the interesting outcomes – especially at the beginning – was the idea that we could actually help with the COVID problem and we were asked, could we produce hand sanitizer," said James Winokur. He's the CEO of Berkshire Roots, a cannabis producer and retailer in Pittsfield.
“Berkshire Roots and a number of Massachusetts entities actually changed some of our processes so we could contribute hand sanitizer wholesale, and those were then distributed to hospitals,” said Winokur.
He attributes the early inclusion of recreational sales in phase one of the Baker administration’s reopening plan to the Commonwealth Dispensary Association, the industry’s lobbyists on Beacon Hill.
“They had a chance to speak to the lieutenant governor’s committee about reopening," said Winokur. "I think they did a great job presenting that we already were able to provide services safely.”
The crisis underscored the fraught position of cannabis on the federal level, since it’s still technically against federal law, forcing industrywide furloughs during the shutdown.
“We are not eligible for federal Paycheck Protection loans like any other business would be," said Pollock. "So it was a very tight situation.”
While the shutdown made its mark on the young industry, Pollock says it won’t halt its growth – but it may make it more difficult for it to thrive.
“It’s already been a hard industry to raise money in, so now that investors see that all of a sudden the government can just come in and shut down your business totally overnight for an unspecified amount of time adds yet another level of risk into the industry,” he told WAMC.
Recreational marijuana sales begin again in Massachusetts Monday.