When Sigrun Kalatschan visited her first dispensary, Mana Supply Co. in Edgewater, she noticed the unused drive-through window right away.

“One day, we’ll have a drive-through,” she recalls the dispensary staff saying.

Kalatschan has been looking forward to it ever since. Following a relaxation of statewide regulations in response to the novel coronavirus pandemic, Mana Supply Co. became Maryland’s first cannabis drive-through.

“It’s so much easier. It’s literally effortless,” Kalatschan said. “It’s just like ordering food.”

The medical marijuana dispensary is smaller than most. It used to be an old bank. Patients say its size and store motto, “Ohana,” a Hawaiian term for “family,” give it an intimate, friendly feel.

But now, it’s the dispensary’s outdoor features that customers value most.

When coronavirus precautions intensified in mid-March, the dispensary’s drive-through was already equipped to get customers their medicine while maintaining social distancing.

Owners Christopher Jensen and Matt Volz saw the drive-through window as an opportunity for disabled patients and frequent customers. They invested $100,000 last summer on an intercom system, high-resolution cameras and secure garage doors.

But without a change in statewide regulations, the drive-through couldn’t legally open. Jensen and Volz were preparing to submit a regulation proposal to the Maryland Medical Cannabis Commission in April. Then, covid-19 hit the state.

When Gov. Larry Hogan (R) shut down all bars, restaurants, gyms and movie theaters the week of March 16, dispensaries across the state moved to offer curbside pickup.

Gold Leaf in Annapolis, which added a curbside pickup option for the pandemic, reported an increase in sales during the first announcements by Hogan and President Trump that the coronavirus had reached the United States.

Medical marijuana dispensaries, growers and processors were deemed essential health-care operations under Hogan’s widespread order to close nonessential businesses.

The decision was a relief for small-business owners and patients worried about accessing their medicine.

“It would be a lot of suffering, a lot of anxiety, a lot of problems out there beyond what they’re having to deal with in their isolation and their quarantines right now,” Jensen said. “For us, it would knock out another 45 jobs in Maryland.”

Medical marijuana dispensaries serve many immunocompromised patients and were instructed to operate under strict social distancing orders. Mana has a second location in Baltimore County that’s doing curbside pickup, but staff and patients still interact to exchange money and cannabis.

The drive-through eliminates person-to-person contact by passing goods through a sanitized drawer in a wall. Health for Life Baltimore in Dundalk also opened a drive-through following social distancing orders.

“The drive-through is literally the perfect solution to everything,” said Annapolis resident Yony Cruz, a Mana patient.

“They’re keeping the workers safe, they’re keeping everything on the inside more sanitary because there’s less volume of people inside, and everyone is getting their medicine.”

The process is similar to picking up fast food or a pharmacy prescription but is designed to mirror an in-person appointment.

Patients drive to the dispensary and pull up to a video intercom to have their state medical cannabis card checked. The patient then loops around the building and gets into the drive-through line.

Prescriptions are ordered ahead of time on Mana’s website or apps such as Weedmaps and Leafly, since patients can no longer enter the store.

The car enters a garage door that closes behind it for security. Patients consult with staff via video and place cash and their ID to be checked again. The card is returned with cannabis through the drawer, and the patient drives off. The process takes about five minutes.

“It’s just efficient,” Cruz said.

Following closures and government mandates at the start of the country’s public health crisis, grocery stores, liquor stores and cannabis dispensaries experienced a spike in customers stocking up on supplies.

Mana saw a 35 percent increase in sales in three weeks. Cars waited in a line that snaked through its small parking lot immediately following Hogan’s stay-at-home order. More than 100 cars visit the drive-through daily.

“I call it the toilet paper run,” Jensen said. “People are afraid they’re not going to be able to get to their medicine.”

Cruz, a Marine Corps veteran, experienced persistent pain from a previously torn meniscus and relentless migraines after a traumatic brain injury. He was prescribed a variety of opioids before getting a medical marijuana card.

“I’d be taking four or five medications for anxiety and migraines and the nausea in the mornings and all this other stuff when you have one basically main relief with marijuana,” he said.

Kalatschan uses cannabis to manage chronic pain, ADHD, anxiety and depression.

Mental health concerns have become prevalent during the pandemic, as the time people are confined to their homes stretches into months, while the number of deaths from covid-19 continues to rise.

“People are dealing with a lot of anxiety right now,” Jensen said. “We’re all stuck at home, some people have compromised immune systems, there’s anxiety about the next paycheck and going back to work.”

— Baltimore Sun