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weed and coronavirus

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By Darralynn Hutson

Ever since cannabis was classified an “essential,” dispensary owners have had to step up to the plate to meet the community’s demand for medical and recreational marijuana. While so many small businesses around the country are unfortunately folding and struggling to adjust to this “new normal” that the coronavirus has brought of their customers being forced to stay home, dispensary owners are seeing booming business.

Black women dispensary owners Hope Wiseman, co-owner of Mary & Main in Maryland and Vetra Stephens, co-owner of 1st Quality Medz in Michigan and CEO of RPTN group, profess that things haven’t slowed down for them. They are actively planning for their future growth.

“Our customers come from all walks of life,” Vetra said. “They are nurses, lawyers, factory workers, people that go to church and people that are suffering and need relief from their pain.”

Her dispensary, 1st Quality Medz, has only been open since January of 2017. Though the shop faces competition from facilities operating illegally, part of “the black market” as she calls it, her dispensary is holding its own.

“We’re down to a skeleton crew and changed the way we package and deliver the products to [doing] curbside pickup, which means moving the counters so that there is more space for the staff,” she said. “We average from 350 to 400 people per day, and the weekends are heavier. We give the customers what the customers want when they want it.”

While there are customers who simply seek to get high, cannabis also offers many relief from pain. Demand has been strong from both sides of that customer base, but that demand also created chaos early on when Michigan’s statewide executive order went into effect March 24.

“The first few days after we were told to close our doors by the state. Customers were confused. Our phones were blowing up,” she said. “Most of the staff had to answer questions guiding customers through the online process.”

“Although the state is shut down, we’re still moving forward with the production of the processing center, doing all of the behind-the-scenes papers and creating security strategies to keep the ball rolling,” she added. “It’s important that I know the key players in both retail and wholesale, selling and purchasing, because there needs to be a voice from the people.”

As for Mary & Main in Maryland, they’re stepping up to make sure medicinal cannabis is distributed to those most in need. The dispensary was founded in 2017 by Hope Wiseman and her mother Dr. Octavia Simkins-Wiseman.  The goal was to create a safe space to provide high-quality products as well as offer patrons cannabis education. In addition to the brick and mortar dispensary, customers have had the option of ordering their medicine online. In the midst of the state’s stay-at-home order, which went into effect at the end of March, patients are being asked to package their orders with caregivers who can pick up for multiple patients.

“Because we have cut the number of people that can be in the dispensary at one time, we’ve asked individual caregivers to take on more patients. We’re bringing a third party delivery company on board soon because we know that people will still decide to stay at home even when the orders have been lifted,” Hope said. “In March, we experienced a 30 percent increase and we saw a consistent climb. Year after year, we’ve seen these incredible increases. When I hosted the 420 experience, it became a whole community building experience that’s grown.”

Mary & Main has also been able to grow online and Hope plans to continue growing the dispensary’s presence through virtual events and opportunities to educate their customer base of medicinal users.

“We have over 24 hours of content that I’m still replaying with 50 different speakers with 501 people that registered for this virtual event, so we’re really building this concept out to provide more content that will consist of a weekly podcast and a monthly meetup to discuss the most urgent topics around cannabis,” she said. “Our team is heavily focused on education and I think that’s something that we do that’s unique. When we’re talking about new and innovative things happening in cannabis, we can bring that to the patient experience at Mary & Main.”

Growth and prosperity aren’t words that are readily associated with business activities during COVID-19, but these dispensary owners have met an essential need and managed to keep their customers returning through innovative means. Succeeding in the cannabis industry is anything but common for Black women who represent less than 1 percent of start-up brands in the space, but Hope and Vetra are confident they can have continued success as stay-at-home orders and infections ease by always putting their customers first.

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