As Arkansas continues to grapple with the social and economic convulsions wrought by the COVID-19 outbreak, television screens and news feeds are filled with stories and images of health care workers risking their own health for the benefit of their fellow citizens. For the most part, though, there has been a conspicuous absence in that narrative of one particular strand of health care professional: the budtender.
Like nurses, doctors, janitors, grocery clerks and the myriad other frontline workers receiving (well-deserved) praise in the local and national media, the Arkansans working in the medical marijuana industry also don gloves and masks each and every day, striding to the front lines of a pandemic to continue providing a vital health care service to our most vulnerable friends, family and neighbors. A crucial difference, though, is that unlike a pharmacist at the corner apothecary or anesthesiologist in a hospital emergency room, workers in Arkansas’s medical marijuana industry are operating within a system that did not exist until last year.
Though the Arkansas Medical Marijuana Amendment was approved by Arkansas voters in November 2016, dispensaries did not open to the public until May 2019. As such, a new industry, operating under new regulations and not a little bit of scrutiny, had less than a year of institutional knowledge on which to draw when the state’s economy ground to a near halt.
State restaurants (by order) and grocery stores (by choice) have turned to takeout and delivery to advance social distancing and slow the spread of disease. The Alcoholic Beverage Control Board prohibits curbside pickup and drive-through service for medical marijuana. But patients possessing a valid Arkansas medical marijuana ID card may opt for delivery of their prescriptions. But, while all licensed dispensaries are allowed to offer delivery service, very few of them do.
The state requires that dispensaries have two employees in the vehicle and the product securely locked in a container throughout transport to legally deliver a prescription. In addition, the vehicle must be unmarked, with no reference to either product or establishment.
Those requirements have hampered dispensaries from offering this service, according to Dan Roda, CEO of Abaca, a local fintech company that connects cannabis and hemp businesses with banks and other financial service providers. As of this writing, only three dispensaries offer a comprehensive delivery service. (A fourth, 420 Dispensary in Russellville, is working to implement delivery service.)
Serving both rural and urban areas, Greenlight Dispensary in Helena-West Helena offers the most expansive medical marijuana delivery service in Arkansas. Greenlight, an outlet of a national chain of dispensaries of the same name that opened June 27, 2019, began to offer delivery in August, Greenlight Delivery Manager Terrance Calhoun said. Delivery is a popular option for Greenlight’s clients, General Manager Holley Stuart said, and the dispensary is now delivering seven days a week (up from four). It filled 57 delivery orders during the first three weeks of April 2020.
Notching the first delivery of medical marijuana in the state, Greenlight is also the first dispensary to offer delivery statewide. For far-flung patients wishing to take advantage of Greenlight’s statewide service, however, a bit of extra planning is necessary. Prescriptions may only be delivered to a qualified patient or designated caregiver, at a residence. According to regulations, “residence” is defined as a house or apartment, and excludes not only commercial businesses, but also hotels, motels, inns, dormitories and any other location a patient or caregiver might be.
Offering delivery statewide requires Greenlight to maintain a wide array of pricing, with deliveries scheduled according to region. Each region has a certain day of the week for scheduled deliveries, and each carries different minimum-purchase requirements and delivery fees. Clients may find their region, as well as its associated minimum-purchase and delivery fees, using the Greenlight Delivery chart, or by calling 870-714-6119.
Greenlight accepts payment upon delivery, and will accept all orders placed by 5 p.m. the day before delivery is scheduled to a client’s region. Only debit cards are accepted as payment.
ReLeaf Center, in bustling Bentonville, has been offering delivery since its first day of operation Aug. 7, 2019. The COVID-19 outbreak and attendant social-distancing policies, however, have caused “a spike” in delivery requests, according to Julie Harris, a ReLeaf employee. The spike, Harris said, has put the dispensary on the lookout for new employees, and although filling a position with knowledgeable persons during an unprecedented and disruptive time is not an easy task, Harris sounds the kind of determined note one is likely to hear on the frontlines of the ongoing crisis. “We’re doing the best we can,” she says, “playing the cards we’ve been dealt.”
According to its website, ReLeaf is delivering Monday through Saturday. The minimum order for delivery is $100, and the delivery fee is $5 for anything within five miles, and $1 per mile for each additional mile, with a maximum delivery radius of 40 miles. ReLeaf will accept cash or debit card upon delivery. Patients requesting delivery must have been to the ReLeaf storefront at least one time prior to delivery, and all delivery customers are urged to place their delivery by 10 a.m. the day of the request.
In contrast to ReLeaf in fast-growing Bentonville, Fiddler’s Green in Mountain View serves one of the most remote areas of the state. The aptly named dispensary — Mountain View is famous as a bastion of Ozark folk music, with impromptu bluegrass and old-time music jams a common sight on the town square — began delivery service about three months ago, according to employee John McNair (no relation to the writer). He said the timing, which more or less lines up with precautions taken to thwart the spread of COVID-19, was “more of a coincidence” than a direct reaction to the pandemic. But because demand for delivery grew, Fiddler expanded its workforce. Along with adding jobs to the local economy, the delivery service is important to Fiddler’s clientele, McNair said, as the combination of illnesses that often limit mobility or compromise immune systems and long, winding drives make delivery the best and safest option for many rural patients.
Fiddler’s Green offers delivery Monday through Thursday, and McNair estimated the dispensary makes 10-12 deliveries per day. Fiddler’s Green delivers over a wide radius that covers all of North Central Arkansas, and will deliver as far east as Jonesboro. A minimum purchase of $125 is required for delivery. Deliveries outside the Mountain View area carry a $25 delivery fee and are scheduled according to region. Clients should contact Fiddler’s Green at 870-269-8600 to determine its delivery schedule. Payment is made upon delivery. Fiddler’s Green accepts cash, debit cards and credit cards.
New challenges, new opportunities
All medical marijuana service providers contacted for this story described a concerted effort by their dispensaries and industry as a whole to meet head-on the challenges posed by the ongoing public health crisis. Workers are wearing masks and gloves, and along with handling a surge in delivery requests, they’re helping their clients maintain a safe distance from one another through limiting numbers of patients inside the store, marking the floor (and spaces outside) to indicate 6 feet of distance, and prohibiting clients from handling or getting close to products until after purchase. Unfortunately, that has done away with the client experience of closely examining or smelling product, but the workers we spoke with considered it a necessity for safety.
Although these extra precautions are not listed in the rules governing the industry and do not appear to have been mandated by either the Arkansas Department of Health or the Alcoholic Beverage Control Board, Abaca CEO Roda said “this has always been an industry that is very focused on hygiene and health, so it wasn’t surprising for me to see operators all be so proactive. They want to keep operating and they want to keep serving patients — that’s the bottom line.”
That attitude seems to permeate the industry, with dispensary employees proudly noting the extra steps they have taken to protect their clients absent additional government directives. According to Greenlight’s Terrance Calhoun, the lack of a rule book dictating what is to be done in a unique crisis can be seen as a positive, with the medical marijuana industry “establishing ourselves” while at the same time establishing protocol. “It’s a good thing we’re new,” says Calhoun, because “we can solve problems as we go,” and should another crisis come, “we’ll know what to do already.”