Dispensary33 at 5001 N. Clark St. in Andersonville. Credit: Joe Ward/Block Club Chicago

LAKEVIEW — Medical cannabis patients in Illinois can now buy their weed without entering dispensaries until March 30, under guidelines issued by the state in an effort to protect vulnerable populations from the spread of the coronavirus.

The changes are meant to protect vulnerable medicinal patients at dispensaries, some of which are already stopping recreational sales amid long lines spurred by the outbreak.

The state has approved applications for over 100,000 medical patients since the program began in 2014, according to state statistics on the program.

“Our top priority is to minimize the risk of and protect as many people from exposure to COVID-19,” said Toi Hutchinson, the state’s cannabis czar in a press release announcing the new guidelines.

“These steps prioritize that critical objective, while also ensuring medical patients have access to the medicine they need.”

Outdoor sales must take place on the dispensary’s property, adjacent sidewalk or street curb, allowing for curbside pickups for medical patients, individuals in the Opioid Alternative Pilot Program and their designated caregivers.

Recreational customers are still limited to making purchases inside the dispensary, and weed delivery remains illegal.

Patient and caregiver cards must be scanned prior to purchases, although they are not required to physically transfer the card. After each transaction, still largely in cash, the cash must be taken into the dispensary, and workers are urged to wear gloves when handling cash.

State officials also gave companies strict rules for operations inside pot shops to combat the spread of the coronavirus, and noted that “Inspectors will be watching cameras daily to ensure continued compliance,” according to the guidelines.

Customers must maintain a minimum six-foot distance from one another, and medical patients must form lines separate from recreational customers. Shop owners must allow their employees to “wash their hands frequently throughout the day” and surfaces that “customers are required to touch” must be disinfected “at least every 30 minutes.” Other frequently touched surfaces, such as computers, must be disinfected at least once per day.

Jason Erkes, spokesman for Cresco Labs, said the company supports the state guidelines, but cautioned it will take some time before outdoor sales begin.

“We are in the process of establishing those protocols now so within the next week or so we will have a safe and streamlined system,” he said. 

The new rules were given after dispensaries across Chicago announced their own measures this week in reaction to the pandemic, including moving to medical only sales, limiting the number of customers in the store at any given time and encouraging online ordering before heading to the dispensary.

The Herbal Care Center on the near West Side, Dispensary 33 in Andersonville and MOCA Modern Cannabis in Logan Square all announced this week that they had suspended recreational weed sales to prioritize medical patients.

MOCA required medical patients to order online before arriving at the dispensary, and urged them to adhere to additional safety precautions once inside.

“Please limit nonessential conversation so that we may assist people as quickly as possible and minimize social interaction. We encourage all at-risk patients to send a caregiver to the dispensary in their place,” read a note posted on their website.

Mission South Shore has remained open for all sales, but created separate sales rooms for medical and recreational customers and has limited the rooms to eight customers at a time.

Cannabis Caregiver

As MOCA noted, medical patients are able to designate a caregiver to make purchases on their behalf, although the application process costs $75 dollars and is time consuming. 

Patients may designate only one person to serve as their caregiver and caregivers may only serve one patient. To qualify as a caregiver, you must;

  • Be a resident of Illinois over the age of 21
  • Complete a fingerprint-based background check and not have been convicted of a violent crime or felony drug offense unless you have an approved waiver for the offense

Applications can be sent to the State of Illinois Department of Public Health, and must include the qualifying patient information, proof of identity, age, and a photograph of the caregiver.

Applications to become a Caregiver can be found on the Illinois Department of Public Health website.

Easing the process to becoming a caregiver could allow vulnerable medical patients to limit their exposure to the coronavirus.

In the guidance issued on Tuesday, the Illinois Dept. of Financial and Professional Regulation acknowledged dispensaries have submitted other suggestions for safety protocols and that “all options are being considered.” 

Block Club Chicago’s coronavirus coverage is free for all readers. Block Club is an independent, 501(c)(3), journalist-run newsroom.

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