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Why cannabis stores are considered essential business

Even as most retail in the state is shut down, cannabis stores are still open.

SPOKANE, Wash — With the stay-at-home order in effect, most business in Washington has come to a standstill. But some stores deemed essential are still operating.

Among those are cannabis retailers.

On first glance, cannabis might not seem like an essential product. Some people still aren't comfortable with the idea of it being a legal product. But there's a pretty straightforward argument for why stores should be allowed to stay open right now.

"Cannabis shops are as essential for medical patients as pharmacies are for most people,” said Stacey Peterson, owner of Apex Cannabis, which has three locations in Eastern Washington.

Marijuana is widely used to treat chronic pain, or to help people through difficult treatments for other diseases like cancer.

“They need us,” said Peterson. “We have patients come in every week and thank us for being here. This week we had a patient come in and bring our staff a box of doughnuts just to thank them."

Beyond that, after years of being legal, recreational marijuana has become for many people a consumer staple like beer or chocolate. If anything, weed may become more important to some folks, at a time when many are struggling with maintaining good mental health.

“Some people just want to relax and enjoy their evening and have some cannabis the way someone would have a glass of wine,” said Peterson.

Marijuana is also a product where, if the legal stores shut down, people who want or need it, can find it elsewhere. That means declassifying the cannabis industry as essential could have a range of unintended consequences.

"The black market would surge,” said Peterson. “The legal cannabis market is tested, regulated, safe. Black market cannabis, who knows."

Thanks to its status as essential, weed sales are up. And, as with many other products, people tend to stock up when they see things in the news that make them nervous.

"As this has all evolved, there have been surges [of sales]," said Peterson.

Just because cannabis is considered essential, doesn't mean retailers don't have to follow some new rules. Social distancing and sanitization measures are required  by state regulators.

At Apex, Peterson has used yellow construction tape to mark 6-foot distances anywhere where customers may congregate, including in line for the cash registers, for the ATM, or just the space where people stand while being served at the counters. There’s even markers on the sidewalk, just in case lines get that long.

Peterson says her staff are also wearing gloves, and regularly washing their hands and cleaning store surfaces. They’ve also stopped allowing customers to touch or hold any products prior to their sale.

"We're doing everything that we can, because it is our responsibility to keep our customers and our staff as safe as we can,” she said.

Thanks to clear signage staff preparation, Peterson says most customers quickly adjusted to the new safety protocols.

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