As the coronavirus pandemic spread across the country and slammed on the breaks of the US economy, something fascinating has happened. After a century of demonization, suddenly marijuana is no longer being seen as a scourge but rather as a necessity. With the majority of US states with recreational marijuana programs declaring pot shops to be essential to public health and safety, it seems we’ve now entered either the Twilight Zone or the true beginning of the Golden Age of marijuana. It’s likely the latter.
Over the past six short weeks in the United States marijuana has gone from nuisance, essentially, to an essential necessity, and from a gateway drug to bona fide medicine.
Here’s how it happened and what it means for you.
How marijuana dispensaries were deemed essential businesses
As COVID-19 swept the nation, starting with San Francisco, California Gov. Gavin Newsom became the first US governor to close down all non-essential businesses. That includes shopping malls, gyms, restaurants and bars, and shops that sell non-essential items such as electronics.
Some of the businesses that have been deemed essential across the country include grocery stores, gas stations, hardware stores, and pharmacies. And, being considered pharmacies, medical marijuana dispensaries made the cut — for the most part.
That, in and of itself, is mind-bending.
But Gov. Newsom didn’t stop there. He also kept recreational dispensaries off the naughty list.
According to Newsom’s senior adviser, Nicole Elliott, the decision was partly based on making sure that medical marijuana patients got their medicine and partly based on not encouraging recreational users to go back to the black market.
In a statement on the topic, Elliott wrote, “Recognizing that patients need access to this medicine, as well as acknowledging the importance that consumers continue to be able to access legal cannabis made safer by our regulated marketplace, the governor deemed the cannabis industry essential.”
As the virus swept across the country, seven other states with recreational marijuana programs followed Gov. Newsom’s lead. The only state to close down their recreational program was Massachusetts. However, medical dispensaries remain open in the state.
According to Mass. Gov. Charlie Baker the reasoning behind the decision was to prevent pot buyers from neighboring states from coming to Mass. to purchase marijuana and thereby spreading the COVID-19 coronavirus to other New England states.
In Washington DC, the US Congress has shut down recreational sales. Maine also declared pot shops to be essential but delayed reopening after an early shutdown. And, the state of Nevada has ordered dispensaries to remain closed and mandated that all cannabis sales must be made via home delivery.
What about the 20-plus additional states with medical marijuana programs? Most of them have deemed medical marijuana to be essential.
There are some ironies in the fact that marijuana dispensaries have now been deemed essential to public health and safety in more than 30 states. The obvious one being that marijuana is considered essential and yet it’s still federally illegal.
“Over the past week, more than a dozen states have agreed that while ‘nonessential’ stores had to close, pot shops and medical marijuana dispensaries could remain open — official recognition that for some Americans, cannabis is as necessary as milk and bread.” — New York Times
The pros and cons for the cannabiz
So how is all of this going to affect the cannabis industry and cannabis consumers?
For one thing, in places where shops remain open, marijuana sales are booming. Cannabis marketing firm Headset claims that March 2020 sales were 160 percent higher than the same month last year. According to the report, larger cannabis companies and multi-state operators have reported record sales during lockdowns.
However, the picture is not all rosy. Regardless of the fact that dispensaries have been deemed essential, concern that the crisis might result in a weed shortage or cause delays in access to dispensaries has Americans stocking up on legal weed which is, in turn, resulting in long lines and shortages at some shops.
Furthermore, in states where shops are being closed, dispensaries are in danger of being killed by the virus response. It seems that because marijuana is still federally illegal, pot businesses are not eligible for emergency funds.
More importantly, many of the consumers who shop at recreational dispensaries are actually medical patients who either did not choose to get a medical marijuana card or who let their card lapse thinking it was no longer needed.
In states where recreational shops have closed, that leaves a large number of medical patients either going without their medicine or turning back to the black market.
This, in turn, threatens public safety as most black market products are not tested for contaminants and toxins such as mold and chemical pesticides.
How will this affect the future of marijuana policy?
So how will this change marijuana policy on the state and local levels?
For one thing, it is now clear that the debate as to whether or not marijuana is medicine has essentially been relegated to the pages of history books. This is mainly due to the simple fact that medical marijuana dispensaries are now widely considered pharmacies and are therefore essential to public health.
Furthermore, seeing as recreational marijuana is, for the most part, also on the nice list in most states, it’s clear that the majority viewpoint is that you smoking a joint in your own home is no more of a threat to the health and wellbeing of society than you having a glass of wine.
Just ten short years ago, recreational marijuana sales and possession were illegal across the country. Now, with more than two-thirds of Americans strongly in the #legalizeit camp, and more than two-thirds of US states deeming medical cannabis as essential, it’s going to be very difficult for Washington lawmakers to hold back the Green tsunami for much longer.
Currently, a handful of cannabis bills passed by the Democratically-lead House are sitting on Mitch McConnell’s desk in a Republican-controlled senate. If the November elections shift the Senate to Democratic control — which is not extremely likely — you can bet that marijuana policy reform legislation will quickly find its way to the president’s desk.
That being said, neither President Trump nor Joe Biden, the Democratic nominee for president, appears to be strongly in favor of nationwide legalization, and the opinion of the president of the United States does carry a lot of weight in Congress.
The bottom line is that although US states are clear on the concept, it’s still anyone’s guess as to when the federal government will get with the program and remove marijuana from its naughty list.