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Coronavirus | Economy & Business | Marijuana

Nevada Interrupted: Budtenders hit the road as legal marijuana goes delivery-only

Curaleaf dispensary in Las Vegas. Image courtesty Curaleaf.

Wysouri "Z" Smith, a budtender at Las Vegas’ Curaleaf dispensary for a little more than a year, said he came to love the experience of talking with customers about their day, helping them find the right cannabis product and eventually knowing their names and favorite orders by heart.

But a statewide shutdown order for nonessential businesses, which directed cannabis businesses to do delivery only and will extend well past marijuana’s famed 4/20 “holiday,” has turned his day-to-day on its head. He now spends his shifts driving orders around town, donning a pair of gloves and a face mask before exchanging cannabis for cash, and keeping the chit chat to a minimum to maintain social distance.

“We try to make the transaction pretty quick, as quick as possible, get it in, get it out,” said Smith, 28. “We don't really want to have a full conversation.” 

Wysouri "Z" Smith is a budtender at Curaleaf dispensary in Las Vegas who has transitioned to doing delivery-only. Photo courtesy Curaleaf.

He’s one of five or six Curaleaf employees who have transitioned to delivery drivers after the state’s announcement. In the highly regulated world of the legal cannabis industry, the approval involves a state inspection of a delivery vehicle — something that regulators are now doing virtually, by examining emailed photos and videos of specific employee and vehicle documents and the vehicle itself.

After a little back and forth with the state about the images that were submitted, Smith got the green light and has been up and running.

Amid the great uncertainty of the pandemic, Smith said many customers are stocking up on cannabis because they don’t know if conditions might change and whether they’ll have access to the dispensary and its products going forward. Most are ordering flower — a half an ounce, if not the full ounce that’s the upper limit of marijuana a person can buy in a single transaction.

But he said he’s noticed a drop in overall volume as jittery customers hold tightly to their money and don’t have as much discretionary income to spend at a dispensary.

Nevada Dispensary Association Executive Director Riana Durrett said while delivery has kept many marijuana businesses going, most are doing just a fraction of the sales they were before and some are not participating at all because the process is “too difficult and inefficient.”

“The illegal market has a stronghold on delivery in southern Nevada,” Durrett said. “To get involved, you’re not only competing with the legal market but a pretty well-oiled illegal market.”

It also requires meticulous recordkeeping. Drivers may not carry more than five ounces of cannabis in a trip, and must file a trip plan, fill out a manifest and log all transactions into a seed-to-sale tracking system called METRC.

Delivery was a small side service for many Nevada dispensaries before, so even the large jump in delivery capacity is not making up for the losses, she said. It’s been a blow for marijuana businesses that are already looking at a tough road ahead because — as part of a federally illegal industry — they can’t deduct business expenses on their taxes and don’t qualify for the Small Business Administration loans that many other businesses are looking to carry them through the challenges of the pandemic.

On a more personal level, what Smith misses is the personalized interaction with the budtender and customer deciding together what product is the best fit.

“When it's over the phone or through a delivery system, I feel like they're just kind of picking up what they could get in the moment,” he said.

Still, he said he’s happy just to have a job during the economic turmoil, and to continue providing a product that people value perhaps even more during uncertain times.

“Some people find cannabis helps them relax or gives a distraction from the stressful situation,” he said. “And for medical patients, they rely on it, so being able to provide access to them is crucial.”

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