SF marijuana dispensaries see big shift to edibles amid coronavirus

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When San Francisco’s shelter-in-place order was announced on March 16, many city residents ran to the grocery store to stock up on things like canned goods and toilet paper.

Other residents went straight to their local dispensary. “The day of shelter in place was the busiest day we’ve ever had,” said Eliot Dobris, a spokesperson for the Apothecarium, a dispensary with three S.F. locations. “We’ve never had longer lines than that, including 4/20 and the first days of recreational sales in the state ever. Stores were just absolutely slammed.”

Dobris said people were also buying in larger quantities than normal, though things have finally started to stabilize a bit.

While customers are purchasing with regularity, their buying habits may be changing, at least in the short term. Cannabis delivery company Eaze said that since March 9, the company has seen sales of edibles rise from 15% to 30%, while the sale of the plant itself has decreased from 25% to 17%.

Vape sales have also slid from 33% to 25%.

This could be due to the fact that inhaling smoke into the lungs can increase a person’s risk of severe coronavirus. Though there have been no studies directly linking cannabis smoking to coronavirus, the disease can cause respiratory illness, which smoking or vaping can aggravate.

Dr. Michael Matthay, the associate director of critical care medicine at UCSF, told SFGATE that research has shown that smoke inhaled into the lungs can delay the clearance of the influenza virus. “Based on prior studies with other pulmonary infections, both bacterial and viral, it is highly likely that cigarette smoking and vaping will increase the risk of coronavirus pneumonia and increase its severity, though we don’t know to what extent.”

Weedmaps, often described as the Yelp of the cannabis industry, saw similar data over the past two weeks. “We have seen increases in edible sales, primarily in California,” said Travis Rexroad, Weedmaps’ director of communications. “We hypothesize people are looking for options that place less strain on their respiratory systems and that are more discreet.”

Rexroad also said traffic to the Weedmaps site has been up as much as 46% month-over-month, and they were on pace to see the number of new users who order on Weedmaps triple from the previous month.

Eaze said that since March 12, they’ve seen a 112% increase in sign-ups in S.F., with a 150% jump in first-time deliveries through the platform.

This increase in sales, as well as cannabis dispensaries’ designation as an essential business in many states, has been reflected in marijuana company stock prices. As the financial market continues to flounder, stock prices for cannabis companies have stayed steady or risen.

Some are even suggesting the financial downturn could pave the way for legalizing marijuana in more states. Taxes generated from marijuana sales have been a huge boon for states with legalization, and it could be a new revenue stream for states suffering from lost income after the pandemic is over.

It’s also one of the few industries that’s hiring right now. Eaze spokesperson Elizabeth Ashford said the company is hoping to get more drivers since the demand is very high for delivery.

Marijuana sales might have been even larger for San Francisco dispensaries in the past two weeks, but the businesses were closed for two days before Mayor London Breed added them to the essential businesses list. Dobris said he was concerned about where residents were going to obtain their product when health and safety should be of utmost importance.

“This is a particularly important time to be aware of where cannabis is coming from,” Dobris said. “You don’t know where black-market cannabis is coming from. It’s more important than ever to get it from a reputable source.”

Once the Apothecarium was open again, the company had to decide how they would make changes in favor of social-distancing practices. The store is encouraging customers to make all their orders online and wait for a text that says their order is ready before picking it up.

Dobris said they’ve also shifted some staff members to exclusively watch for six feet of space between patrons as well as to solely be responsible for cleaning surfaces.

Ashford said that while food delivery drivers made simple changes to their job, their business isn’t quite the same. “You can’t just drop a bag of cannabis at someone’s doorstep. You still have to verify ID and get a signature,” she said. “Drivers are wearing gloves and sanitizing between deliveries.”

And just as grocery stores aren’t exactly celebrating high sales volumes, neither are marijuana businesses. “This is a time when our sales are high, our volume is high, and normally that would be a wonderful thing, but a pandemic is not good for anyone,” Ashford said. “This is a very tough time.”

Tessa McLean is a digital editor with SFGATE. Email her at tessa.mclean@sfgate.com or follow her on Twitter @mcleantessa.

Tessa McLean