The Aboveground and Underground Cannabis Economy in Maryland Amid COVID-19

COVID-19 has provided Maryland’s medicinal cannabis dispensaries with increased sales and left them with a problem to solve: How to make those sales amid social distancing and state-ordered “stay at home” policies.

Morgan Eichensehr of the Baltimore Business Journal, spoke to Christopher Jensen of Mana Supply in Edgewater, MD who said his store’s sales have increased by more than 30% over the past few weeks. In a comprehensive piece for the Baltimore Sun by Taylor DeVille spoke to among others,  Mitch Trellis of Remedy Columbia who said, “Every store in the state is busier than they’ve ever been.” The Washingtonian posted a story on March 20 titled, “Sales Surge At Medical Marijuana Dispensaries and Gifting Services Around DC,” that said that D.C.’s Anacostia Organics “saw a surge in sales over the last week and a half.” 

The BBJ also described how dispensaries in Maryland are staying open and staying safe. This includes limiting how many patients are inside the building at one time and thanks to COVID-19-related Maryland Medical Cannabis Commission rules, how dispensaries can take orders online or over the phone, and can meet patients in the parking lot for transactions.

Perhaps the most interesting stopgap solution by a dispensary is Mana, which operates out a former bank building. Mana’s owners Jensen and Matt Volz decided to utilize the drive-thru teller window to facilitate sales:. “We thought by moving directly to that drive-thru option, we could even further limit that face-to-face time between patients and employees,” Jensen told the BBJ.

Maryland cannabis businesses’ concerns have to do with worker hours and work availability. Social distancing and quarantining, The Sun wrote, “means less man hours as employees with no available babysitter call out to watch their kids, or socially distance to avoid potentially infecting elderly parents, all while managers try to stagger growers’ schedules to adhere with state guidelines prohibiting close gatherings of more than 10 people.” And in the long term, the concern is going to be supply as growing and distribution stalls and demand continues.

What has not been discussed when it comes to cannabis and coronavirus is how this is affecting those dealing cannabis in the illicit market. To get a sense of what it’s like to deal cannabis in the underground economy during a pandemic, The Outlaw Report spoke to two illicit market cannabis dealers operating in Baltimore and serving very different customer bases. Both of them are identified only by their first name initial only for obvious reasons.

“R” mostly deals cannabis for a little extra cash and to “spread love,” he says. Mostly, he’s passing it along to friends and family, and about the only consistent buyers that aren’t people he’s known for years are people in his East Baltimore neighborhood who get it from him because it’s quick and easy and for some, because they don’t feel comfortable getting a medicinal cannabis card.

“People who don’t want their name in a little database or don’t want to pay a doctor to tell the government they are allowed to smoke a plant,” R says. “I help them out.”

R has a friend who ships it from Colorado and generally, he’s giving it away at a discounted rate because it doesn’t cost him anything to buy. He uses the little bit of money he makes for bills.

“Those eighths [are] a car payment,” R said.

Lately, he’s been baggies passing through windows or asking customers to leave cash in a zip lock bag in the mailbox and he’ll drop an eighth in the mailbox and grab the zip lock of cash. And he is trying to tighten his circle to just people whose house he can walk to for sales. He’s also charging regular prices because he’s not sure when he’ll get more—or for how long he won’t have to go to his day job. 

“Suddenly this little like, side hustle I have is all I have,” R says.

“M” who mostly deals in a mostly white, gentrifying neighborhood, has been dealing for decades. In his mid-fifties, it’s how he makes his money and has made it for most of his life.

“Only weed for years and years, for a long time” M says. “Sometimes some blow.”

He admits he has been pivoting to cocaine more over the past few years—since medical cannabis came to Maryland—because a lot of the people he served are students and young professionals who quickly signed up for a medicinal cannabis card. Those same students and twenty somethings with office jobs kept hitting him up for cocaine even after they got their cannabis cards. 

He is trying to sell more cocaine now. His weed sales have picked up a little because of COVID-19, he noticed, but mostly because his customers that still buy from him are asking for more and stocking up. He has not increased his prices. He’s worried about his supply. 

As orders from the state on who can travel and for how long get increasingly restrictive, he’s not sure how easy it will be to drive out and meet his weed connect. And each sale—usually in-person but outside and around the corner from his house—scares him a little.

“I’m old. I’m susceptible to this disease,” M says. “But I need the money.”

Harriet Smith, executive director of the Baltimore Harm Reduction Coalition explained that disruptions to the drug market play out the same way aboveground and underground.

“Any disruption of the normal flow can disrupt the flow of the aboveground economy and the underground economy,” Smith said. “And people’s access to drugs that they trust that have been expected is all up in the air now.”

Photo by nhungboon / Shutterstock

The Aboveground and Underground Cannabis Economy in Maryland Amid COVID-19

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