Will COVID-19 Cause The US Government To Finally Treat Cannabis As A Medicine?

Andre Bourque

The debate is still well underway and unresolved: Is cannabis (both marijuana and hemp) considered a plant with medicinal value?

Cannabis scientists have proven over and over again, it can be. Examples abound where cannabis has proven effective in treating seizures, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and even oral health and diabetes, among a variety of other conditions. Still, lawmakers and cannabis advocates do not overwhelmingly agree.   

Even presidential nominee, Joseph Biden, whose social policies are more progressive than that of his conservative counterparts, believes medical marijuana requires more research before the federal government can legalize it. 

More recently, the debate on marijuana’s medicinal legitimacy has been front and center as states and cities struggle to cope with COVID-19 and hinder the spread of the virus. As the coronavirus sets in, more and more states, cities, and counties have shut down all commerce except that deemed “essential.” When it comes to medical marijuana, this definition has been put to the ultimate test. 

While in some parts of the country marijuana dispensaries remain open during the national shutdown, in other parts, those same types of dispensaries are closed. 

Back And Forth, And Somewhere In Between

In San Francisco, California, for example, the city first deemed marijuana dispensaries “non-essential,” ordering them to shut down during the temporary ban on business as usual. Meanwhile, 50 miles south of San Francisco, in San Jo`se, California, the city found in favor of marijuana dispensaries, permitting them to remain open during the coronavirus lockdown, classifying them alongside hospitals, grocery stores, and gas stations, as an “essential” service to the community. 

See Also: Noticias sobre cannabis en Español en ElPlanteo.com

Shortly thereafter, San Francisco changed its position and the San Francisco Department of Health sent a tweet saying that dispensaries could stay open after all. “People rely on medical cannabis for chronic pain, seizure disorders, muscle spasms, depression and multiple other disorders and conditions,” Dr. Susan Philip, director of disease prevention and control in the city’s public health department, said. “So I want to clarify ... that cannabis dispensaries are allowed to remain open for pickup or delivery of these essential medical treatments.”

In Colorado, despite the state’s willingness to allow marijuana businesses to remain active, on Monday morning, March 22nd, Denver’s mayor on Monday initially told recreational cannabis retailers they would need to close before reversing that decision only hours later after droves of customers stormed dispensaries in order to stock up.

Similarly, in Massachusetts, a state with legal marijuana laws, both recreational and medical dispensaries were first ordered to close. Days later, on March 24th, only medical marijuana dispensaries were permitted to stay open through noon ET April 7, while recreational cannabis shops remained closed under fears that recreational marijuana stores could draw out-of-state customers.

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In Michigan, another state where both recreational marijuana is legal, cannabis retailers can remain open, however sales are permitted solely by curbside service or delivery, with in-store transactions temporarily prohibited. While in the medical marijuana approved neighboring state of Ohio, the state’s health director stipulated that “licensed medical marijuana dispensaries and licensed medical marijuana cultivation centers” could keep their doors open.

To compound the confusion, some adult-use dispensaries chose to remain open in certain states, serving only consumers with medically approved needs and proper credentials. MOCA Modern Cannabis in Illinois, for example, suspended recreational marijuana sales to focus on more vulnerable MMJ customers, according to the Chicago Tribune. This, despite the fact that Illinois deemed all state-licensed cannabis growers and retailers (both recreational and medical) as “essential” according to the governor’s stay-at-home order.

Many states and cities had no back-and-forth decisions around their treatment of marijuana as an “essential” product. This, due largely to an understanding and agreement that the plant serves as medicine for thousands upon thousands of patients. 

Maryland and Pennsylvania, for example, both with medical marijuana programs, allowed those businesses to remain open, while ordering businesses deemed “non-essential” to shut down. Similarly, on Tuesday, March 24th, the New York state Department of Health declared medical cannabis businesses as being essential to the population and allowed them to remain open. The medical marijuana market in Florida has been treated the same.

Demand For Marijuana

By and large, cannabis retailers reported larger purchases made by consumers looking to stockpile marijuana products in the midst of state quarantine orders, not knowing how long these new directives would remain in place. For this reason, New England Treatment Access dispensary in Brookline, Massachusetts, was forced to eliminate all walk-in customers due to high volume, pivoting to serve only those customers who placed orders in advance. 

In Florida, consumers are flocking to cannabis stores as the COVID-19 crisis ramps up. Based on a report released on March 20, 2020, the medical marijuana-legal state saw sales of (THC), the psychotropic ingredient in marijuana, grow 39% over the week before according to Jonathan Cooper of Seeking Alpha. Additionally, the sale of marijuana flower grew 38% over a week that, at the time, notched record sales in the state. 

 

 

Marijuana delivery services have flourished in the COVID-19 world, as well, as some customers would rather avoid the health risk of visiting a dispensary in person. Amanda Denz, co-founder and CEO at Sava, a San Francisco-based delivery company, said, "We've seen a slight increase in sales over the last two weeks as news of COVID-19's impact on our community continues to spread." 

What’s The Definition of ‘Essential,’ Anyway?

All this regulatory confusion on one hand, and overwhelming product demand on the other, begs the question: What’s the definition of “essential” anyway?

The term “essential” itself has a vague definition around it. While doctors, pharmacies, and grocery stores are reasonably deemed essential, liquor stores and hardware stores are, as well. The former, of which, strikes colorful debate. “Cannabis is essential and many are using it as therapy during this hard time,” said Rachel King, founder and culinary director at gourmet cannabis edibles manufacturer, Kaneh Co. “Research needs to be funded and the plant needs to be declassified.”

Understandably most cannabis advocates agree, the cannabis plant is medicinal, and therefore, essential. "Cannabis businesses are essential, whether they be medical or adult use as products are medicine used by sick patients to manage their symptoms and ease their suffering,” said Tyler Strause, founder of Randy’s Club, a company that develops scientifically-formulated hemp-derived health products. “During this crisis it is important to treat business and consumers fairly. As long as grocery stores and pharmacies are open selling alcohol and prescription drugs, so too should medical and adult use cannabis dispensaries and related businesses be allowed to remain open to serve their customers and support their community." 

States have, in fact, been choosing to decide cannabis is medicine and should be legal, but not enough of them and to the degree necessary to change the federal government’s position on marijuana legalization. 

“How could it not be?,” asked Aaron Pelley, founder and CEO at leading cannabis legal firm, Cultiva Law. “Lest we forget, ten of thousands of people in California use cannabis for medical purposes everyday. When we use cannabis recreationally, we often are functional, seeking to become impaired,” he continued. “For those using cannabis medicinally, they are impaired, trying to become functional. That is the very definition of essential.” 

The reality is that on the state-level, we are seeing an acceptance as a vice and as a medicine - both remain open during times of crisis,” said Leland Radovanovic, founder and CEO of Conscious Communications Collective, an industry communications, branding, and strategy company. “This could continue to trickle up to the federal level. And, if we are being honest, we will need to refill tax coffers after this storm dies down and cannabis is one way to do it.”

Will COVID-19 Cause A Change In How Cannabis Is Regarded?

These cannabis-as-medicine sentiments are triggering the idea that perhaps COVID-19 will force the federal government to finally make a decision on how to resolve the contradictions between state laws on marijuana versus those of the country as a whole. Afterall, it’s hard to ignore the chaos this once-in-a-lifetime sequestering and shutdown situation has caused in merely trying to establish whether a dispensary stays open or closed, and how it conducts business if it does remain open.

With over four years working with and writing about the FDA, hemp foods pioneer and industry thought leader, Richard Rose, quoted former Chicago Mayor, Rahm Emanuel, saying, “You never let a good crisis go to waste. And what I mean by that is it’s an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before.” Rose, author of The Richard Rose Report, believes this crisis has the potential to re-shape FDA as well as deschedule marijuana in response. “It’s contrary to the stated mission of the FDA, to encourage development of new medicines. It is actually hindering that.”

COVID-19 has the potential to change that. “Now in the crisis, those states with legal programs are deciding that they are essential, in terms of medical specifically,” stated Richard William Guerra, publisher at industry-leading Sensi Magazine, Boston edition. “There is a lot of press and talk about cannabis as an industry in this crisis, so post-crisis we should see Congress and the federal government considering it more than ever because of the ability for its legalization to provide needed stimulus and jobs for the ailing economy.”

Could today’s pandemic lead to tomorrow’s final judgement on cannabis? It may very well prove to be the impetus for it, or for serious federal deliberation about it at the least. 

Feature Image: depositphotos.com

Andre Bourque is a cannabis industry connector, executive advisor to several cannabis companies, brand strategy advisor, and a cannabis industry analyst. In addition to Benzinga, Andre’s articles have been featured in Forbes, The Huffington Post, Entrepreneur.com, Yahoo Finance, CIO Magazine & ComputerWorld.

You can connect with him at @socialmktgfella on LinkedIn, Twitter, and Instagram.

The preceding article is from one of our external contributors. It does not represent the opinion of Benzinga and has not been edited.

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