Northern California cannabis businesses are handling a lot of paper money amid the coronavirus pandemic

Business is good for cannabis dealers, even during the coronavirus pandemic.

But with many suppliers unable to use bank accounts the industry faces a bigger risk - using cash with its questionable health profile.

For an assortment of North Bay cannabis dealers from Ukiah to Fairfax, there's simply no other option to use while they serve the surge in customers who rely on the product every week. Since the federal government still regards marijuana as an illegal drug, despite California's passing recreational use a few years ago, traditional business practices are blown out the window. Rates banks charge merchants appear cost prohibitive to consider using, if the option is offered at all.

“We've got no choice. We can't have a bank account, and we can't use credit card payments,” said Lew Tremaine, manager of the CBC Marin Alliance.

By the same token, many shop managers like Tremaine are experiencing a business boon from customers seeking the benefits of cannabis. Beyond using cannabis for pain relief and sleep recovery, customers rely on the calming nature of the substance more than ever.

“I'm not happy for society, but business hasn't been this good in a long time,” he said.

Dirty money?

Studies have long shown U.S. dollar bills are filthy, moving through our economy while contaminated with all types of substances, including fecal matter.

To handle the demand, many cannabis operators have put measures into place to protect the safety of both their workers and employees while passing U.S. bills around.

“That's what hand sanitizer is for,” Tremaine said from his Fairfax cannabis shop in Marin County. The business was started in 1997, a year after the state passed Proposition 215.

CBC has placed tape indicating where customers should stand measuring 6 feet. In turn, customers walk in wearing masks to greet a glove-wielding staffer.

“The second we touch cash, the gloves come on. Then, they're contaminated. I've heard germs live on money for six days,” Tremaine said.

According to a 2002 report in the Southern Medical Journal, paper money can be as dirty as a toilet and may transfer a flu virus for at least two and a half weeks. COVID-19 has posed a new set of issues with a society urged to refrain from touching surfaces.

There's no definitive research on how long COVID-19 may live and be transmitted through the exchange of cash dollars, the National Institutes of Health told the Business Journal.

A new joint study was conducted by NIH, along with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, U.C. Los Angeles and Princeton University for the New England Journal of Medicine. It was reported a few weeks ago that “the stability of SARS-CoV-2 - which causes COVID-19 disease - was detectable in aerosols for up to three hours, up to four hours on copper, up to 24 hours on cardboard and up to two to three days on plastic and stainless steel.” Even with money's unique textured surface, it was not singled out for its potential lifespan.

The average lifespan of cash denominations from $1 to $100 bills ranges from 6.6 to 22.9 years, respectively, the Federal Reserve reports.

Paperless plan

The United States is lagging behind the rest of the world in accepting paperless payments. But despite cash to be known to be covered in germs, the World Health Organization has shied away from issuing any special warning about using it in the age of the coronavirus. At best, WHO initially advised people to use “contactless” technology to make payments. Now the global health authority insists those holding the notes to simply wash their hands. It's no different than handing a merchant a credit card.

Still, tell that to a shop dealer with limited options.

“I wish we didn't have to deal with cash. Banks won't allow cannabis businesses to have accounts,” West Coast Smoke owner Kim Mercier said from her Mendocino County operation. Mercier's business is strictly doing cannabis deliveries but has stretched the company's reach into Napa and Sonoma counties.

Mercier bans drivers from working sick. Dealing with orders which have tripled since the business opened in 2018 workers show up wearing protective gear.

Nonetheless, the cannabis supplier worries about her workers.

“People forget just how significant these people are. There are heroes everywhere. You can't have Batman without Robin,” said Mercier, who has a law enforcement-criminal justice background.

John Sugg has erected a glass window at the Sonoma Patient Group shop that separates the merchant handling the cash and cannabis product from the buying customer.

“We're trying to minimize any possibility of transmitting the disease - like many businesses,” Sugg said.

Another Sonoma County cannabis dispensary, Solful, deals with cash only but is evaluating other options such as Venmo and block chain technology to secure payments for the goods.

“Our hands are tied somewhat because we don't have access to the traditional merchant process,” Chief Executive Officer Eli Melrod said.

For now, “high-touch” surfaces are cleaned every half hour and the exchange of goods in the parking lot is a multi-step process for his diligent staff in his 20-person workforce. The lengthy process involves careful consideration of when to use hand sanitizer, masks, gloves and Ziploc bags.

Curbside deliveries have dominated the business, which is up among Solful's more than 30,000 customers in the database. Melrod would like for the industry to gain more respect for its service.

“We have to comply by the (state) rules and have no access to (federal CARES Act) benefits. It's insane. Cannabis should have a seat at the table. It's unfair,” he said. “I just feel fortunate I have a passionate team putting in a huge effort.”

Aside from primarily using cash to conduct business, Harvest of Napa has signed up for the electronic payment service called Hypur. Harvest offers only on-line orders.

“Patients are allowed in after they have already reserved a product online ahead of time,” Harvest spokesman Alex Howe said. “This minimizes their total time in the store. We are only allowing a total of 10 people in one space at one time and maintain a 1:1 patient to employee relationship.”

Alicia Rose of Herba Buena sympathizes with the plights of other cannabis dealers and adds one of her own - expansion in the age of the coronavirus.

The outbreak has all but halted current and future operations.

A two-year process, her dream of an 8,400-square-foot mega development planned in Santa Rosa is stalled in the local government's permit process. The plan includes a retail marketplace, demonstration garden, consumption rooms and manufacturing facility.

She also awaits the signing on of a delivery partner to get orders out.

“It's been incredibly difficult at every turn,” she said.

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