KAPAA, Kauai — Kauai’s only marijuana dispensary is hidden in a nondescript building behind an outpost for the American Medical Response ambulance service and across the street from the bus stop in which the same woman in a wheelchair has lived semi-continuously for more than two years.

There is a sign facing the street that spells out “Green Aloha,” without mentioning marijuana. On the building itself, which can’t be seen from the roadway, there is just a sign that reads “open” during business hours.

And, like the rest of the legal marijuana industry in Hawaii, Green Aloha has moved into the COVID-19 era with strict staff rules. The shop bans sales staff from touching the customer’s driver’s license and pot license card. Gloves are available and only three customers can be inside at a time.

Green Aloha is the only medical marijuana dispensary on Kauai. Allan Parachini/Civil Beat/2020

All of the 13 dispensary locations throughout Hawaii have remained open for business continuously during the COVID-19 crisis, classified as essential services by Gov. David Ige’s statewide stay-at-home order. The shops are owned by eight different companies.

Social distancing standards are in place in virtually all of the locations. Strict rules have been introduced for wiping off counters and other surfaces customers might touch. The Pono Life dispensary on Maui has even designated a private sales area for kupuna and others with special needs.

Most of the dispensaries have also introduced take-out service in which orders can be called in ahead of time and picked up quickly, minimizing the time the customer has to be inside.

But, so far, curb service isn’t available because the Hawaii Department of Health isn’t quite ready for pot dispensaries to be that brazen, according to Casey Rothstein, owner of Green Aloha.

Rothstein’s pot shop here has experienced the same COVID-19-related developments that other dispensaries describe. He said Green Aloha serves about 50 customers per day.

He and other dispensary managers say that in the days before Ige’s stay-at-home order, there was a pronounced uptick in sales as customers — fearful they would be unable to resupply if pot shops were closed down — engaged in binge buying of much higher quantities than normal.

This hybrid marijuana strain is grown by Green Aloha. 

“Before the lockdown, we were crazy busy,” Rothstein said. “Since the order, it’s slowed back down. Before the order, we had the busiest two or three weeks we’ve ever had.”

Rothstein and other dispensary managers say many customers have had perceptibly higher levels of anxiety than before the COVID-19 crisis. “Some people have no anxiety and some people are freaked out,” he said.

Kauai being Kauai, Rothstein described one customer who came in “bundled in plastic,” with two layers of gloves, wearing a mask and safety glasses with goggles over them.

He said that because Hawaii’s pot shops must grow their own product, Green Aloha has simply continued the normal precautions in effect at its grow operation. There, he said, workers must put on glasses and a safety suit and pass through a clean chamber before they enter the area where the plants are. Hawaii state regulators have always enforced strict sanitation standards for marijuana cultivation facilities.

Rothstein said he has kept his entire staff of about 16 on while the stay-at-home order is in place. He said eight of them previously worked other part-time jobs as bartenders, but those jobs have vanished. He has tried to give them extra hours.

Claire Hill, of Pono Life, said her dispensary — alone among the five operations with which Civil Beat spoke — has seen above normal sales volumes continue since the governor’s order went into effect.

“Our customers have continued to state that they are stocking up,” she said. “They are purchasing large volumes, such as ounces, instead of making more frequent trips for smaller quantities.

“That being said, while our sales volume has grown, mainly from returning customers, we have seen a drop in new customers and out-of-state patients.”

Hill said Pono Life believes the same “stockpile mentality” that has seen runs on toilet paper and other essentials at grocery stores and places like Costco is affecting the pot industry.

At the Hawaiian Ethos dispensary on Hawaii island, spokeswoman Diana Hahn said business has returned more or less to normal after the initial surge, when customers seemed obsessed by the need to buy up a 30-day supply. Business volumes, she said, “are a mixed bag. It’s kind of what you would expect to see across the community. We have a number of patients who would be at risk due to age and preexisting conditions.”

At Cure Oahu, one of Honolulu’s dispensaries, spokeswoman Teddi Anderson said there are fewer customers in the dispensary at any one time now than before the crisis hit, but that they are purchasing greater quantities of pot.

“It is natural to feel a heightened sense of anxiety given the current state of the world,” she said, “but it is the responsibility of our staff to take care of our customers and ease their discomfort.”

At Maui Grown Therapies in Kahului, spokesperson Teri Gorman said, “We’ve observed that our patients are visiting less frequently, but buying more when they do come in. The lockdown certainly raised the importance of staying home, which we are embracing wholeheartedly.”

She said critical areas in the shop are disinfected every 30 minutes and Maui Grown has bottles of hand sanitizer available throughout the location. Staff members take regular hand-washing breaks. The first and last hours of each business day, she said, have been set aside for individual shopping by kupuna, by appointment.

A preexisting seniors/veterans discount program, which was in effect one day a week, now covers all seven days. Every arriving patient receives a pair of disposable gloves. The dispensary also designated itself as a “touch-free zone.”

Although perceived levels of anxiety and mental stress are clearly up, Gorman said, “Maui is still a small, tight-knit community and there is a lot of mutual support on our island. Most of our patients have been with us for two-and-a-half years, so Maui Grown Therapies has become kind of a safe harbor refuge for them.

“Although we are standing farther apart from one another these days, the relationships between our staff and our patients and between patients are strong. We know we will get through this together.”

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