Some States are Vaccinating Cannabis Workers Against COVID-19
Old Apple Farm, which supplies Oregon’s legal marijuana industry, is a series of greenhouses and brightly painted, hangar-like buildings in the Willamette Valley.
Inside, pickers and trimmers work away, kitted out in thousands of dollars of new personal protective equipment to stay safe during the coronavirus pandemic and keep contributing to an industry the state has deemed essential. But according to CEO Michael Getlin, cannabis workers aren’t eligible to be vaccinated, even though the business has taken a huge dive to comply with Covid rules.
“It’s been crippling to us and slowed our time to market down threefold in 2020,” Mr Getlin said, “and we don’t have any change on the horizon for that unfortunately.”
Old Apple Farm’s workforce includes as many as 34 people during peak season, but that number has been slashed to allow for social distancing and other protective measures. Mr Getlin says he understands “there’s a lot of essential workers doing a lot of essential work” across different industries in Oregon and doesn’t envy the choice before public health authorities, but believes cannabis workers should be among those prioritized for speedy access to the vaccine.
“It’s no mystery that a huge percentage of Oregonians that use marijuana, use it medically,” he said. “I do believe we’re a healthcare-adjacent industry and really an essential industry for the health of the state.”
Across the country, according to legal experts and advocates, the industry has largely been left in the dark on when its workers will get the vaccine, even as more than half of US states across the country kept marijuana businesses open during the pandemic as essential.
Morgan Fox, a spokesperson for the National Cannabis Industry Association, said he wasn’t aware of any states prioritizing vaccine access for the cannabis industry.
“It’s reasonable to suggest they may not be first in line, but they should be up there on the priority list because they are essential workers and they have to deal with a lot of immuno-compromised patients, so it’s pretty important they be Covid-free,” he said.
There are, however, two exceptions: Maryland and California.
Maryland put the state’s more than 130 licensed cannabis companies alongside health providers to be eligible for early doses.
SunMed Growers told the Baltimore Business Journal that its employees are already signing up for shots and some will get them by week’s end.
San Diego County in California has also prioritised the industry for early vaccination, although others in the state have reported confusion about where they stand in the line, as state vaccination guidelines don’t explicitly name the cannabis industry.
The California public health department did not respond to a request for comment.
Victor Pinho, who manages an Oakland-based weed delivery service, said that a county official said the state treats the industry as an essential business, just not essential for the first round of vaccines.
“Being in the position that I’m in now – a management position for a delivery service in Oakland – my employees are like, ‘When do we get this? We’re seeing people every day,’” he said.
There’s also the matter of whether people in the industry will take the vaccines once they arrive. Data from Pew Research suggests that almost 40 per cent of Americans are currently not planning to get the vaccine – although vaccine confidence is increasing.
Vaccines have arrived for some farmworkers in the state – a highly Covid-vulnerable population that’s older, often lacks insurance and immigration status, and lives in multi-generational households – so it’s not inconceivable a county could decide on a similar move for the cannabis industry.
But the marijuana industry is a strange one, legal in more than half of the 50 states but illegal federally, part farming, part retail, part medical, part entertainment, so America’s vaccine response may continue to struggle to categorize it.
And if that’s the case, small businesses like Old Apple Farm will continue to struggle as a result. Their half-legal status means they’re already shut out of federally-backed banks and pandemic relief funds, and not getting the vaccine squeezes them even further.
“We don’t have any of the tools available to us that’ve been available to every other business in the state,” Getlin said. “It’s tough, it’s a slap in the face, but cannabis businesses are usually run by tough people used to making do with what they have. Unfortunately, it’s nothing new.”