The harm reduction case for deeming cannabis essential during COVID-19

Thanks to states like California, which has deemed the cannabis industry as an “essential business” in the wake of the COVID 19 global pandemic, pot shop owners across the country have been able to weather the social distancing storm caused by the novel coronavirus. For many small business owners, the reprieve comes as much needed relief in the wake of what’s turning out to be one of the worst economic downturns since the Great Depression. Moreover, after a year in which the cannabis industry came under scrutiny, in many ways unfairly, following a mysterious lung disease that was caused by illicit vape carts sold on the streets, many wondered just how much more they could survive.

It’s a concerning time for the still-young industry, which, unlike many other businesses across the country, lacks the security of a federal safety net. Because cannabis is still listed as a Schedule I drug by the Drug Enforcement Agency, any pot shop owners — and even many ancillary businesses — remain ineligible for federal dollars that come out of any stimulus packages passed by Congress.

“We saw the potential to lose everything and then have the state or federal government not have our backs at all,” Dave Wingard, owner of Flora Terra, a marijuana cultivator and dispensary in Santa Rosa, California told the Washington Post. “It was very scary.”

Still, while many in the cannabis industry can find solace that they’ve been labeled an “essential business” by state governments, allowing them to stay open and keep people employed, the move has put many detractors on the attack. Jeff Hunt, for example, Director of the Centennial Institute and Chair of Western Conservative Summit, tweeted recently against the move.

“Colorado’s leadership should ask the marijuana industry to tighten their belts like the rest of us,” he wrote. “Make no mistake, they’re not open because weed is “essential”; they’re open because the pot lobby is holding our state hostage.”

The harm reduction case for labeling cannabis essential 

But as COVID-19 keeps the bulk of people quarantined due to Stay-at-Home orders, it’s become increasingly clear that the case for labeling cannabis essential goes beyond pure economics. In fact, what’s become increasingly evident is that cannabis as an essential product is a powerful tool in the harm reduction movement.

As Kassandra Frederique of the Drug Policy Alliance and Dr. Kim Sue of the Harm Reduction Coalition wrote recently, in a piece posted on the Drug Policy Alliance website, current U.S. drug policy may be making people more vulnerable to COVID-19. Most notably, this happens when the novel coronavirus crosses paths with the American criminal justice system.

“The rapid escalation of COVID-19 across the U.S. is exposing many of the systemic vulnerabilities within our society while also revealing the many policy and criminal justice decisions that have made us more vulnerable,” they write.

Forcing cannabis back onto the illicit market during this global pandemic puts people at increased risk of coming into contact with the virus, whether it’s through unnecessary contact with the criminal justice system, something that puts their housing situation in jeopardy, or something else. Deeming cannabis an essential business, while not perfect, can help to prevent these issues in some way.

During this period of social distancing, cannabis can be a form of self-care for many, especially those who have no other outlet when seeking help. One user on Twitter noted when asked, keeping cannabis essential during this time can stave off withdrawals, help people who use it for medical purposes, and aid those who use it to stop using other substances.

“During the current crisis, we need open and compassionate lines of communication between health professionals and people with increased risk of contracting COVID-19, not less,” noted Frederique and Kim. And compassion is the ultimate harm reduction case for deeming cannabis essential.

Header Image: Darrin Harris Frisby/Drug Policy Alliance

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