The great coronavirus pandemic of 2020 has made it, literally, official: America, from coast to coast, has embraced cannabis.
Of the 47 states that have legalized medical cannabis, all have classified medical dispensaries as essential businesses exempt from any orders for businesses generally to close. Of the 11 states that have legalized cannabis entirely, only Massachusetts has deemed adult use dispensaries nonessential (medical dispensaries remain open in Massachusetts). As Marijuana Business Daily put it, “State and local officials from coast to coast have officially recognized that cannabis is essential to the quality of life for many Americans, just as pharmacies and hospitals are.”
All of this is a lot to applaud for us who have long labored to get cannabis the legal status and cultural respect it deserves. However, some truths about the cannabis industry in America begin to surface when we examine the situation in Massachusetts with its tightly regulated market. Governor Charlie Baker, reportedly worried so-called “recreational” dispensaries encourage travel from neighboring prohibition states (he’s looking at you, New York), ordered them closed Tuesday, March 24, as nonessential businesses. Medical dispensaries are deemed essential, and so are liquor stores.
Every business in Massachusetts ordered closed is suffering, but only cannabis retailers have an active competition that remains open. The illicit cannabis industry in Massachusetts (as in most of the adult legal states) is conservatively estimated to be multiples bigger than the taxed-and-regulated legal industry. Unlike its untaxed competitor, the legal cannabis industry in Massachusetts (and every state) is taxed extortionately — particularly by the federal government.
Because it is federally illegal to transport cannabis across state lines (even between two legal states), the entire cannabis supply chain in Massachusetts is in peril now. Untold millions have been spent on grow facilities that, at least for the time being, have a crop that can’t be sold. Meanwhile, the illicit industry is busy selling cannabis that was probably imported to Massachusetts from elsewhere in the US.
The Veterans Cannabis Project is petitioning the governor to have all Massachusetts dispensaries deemed essential businesses because so many vets rely on cannabis to manage pain, psychic and physical. The Veterans Cannabis Project makes an important point: the distinction between “medical” and “recreational” cannabis is entirely arbitrary. Researchers have found that the most common reason people purchase from adult use dispensaries is to help with insomnia, followed closely by general pain relief. Those are much the same reasons people give to qualify for medical cards. In real life, people use cannabis for all sorts of reasons blended together, which makes the distinction between “medical” and “recreational” at best silly, and in this particular circumstances in Massachusetts, heartless.
The good news is that the other 10 adult legal states have deemed adult use dispensaries as essential businesses, and Governor Baker could reverse his order. The mayor of Denver ordered both liquor stores and adult use dispensaries to close as nonessential businesses, only to rescind the order three hours later when long lines formed outside both.
The media has had a lot of fun with both liquor stores and cannabis dispensaries being officially listed as “essential” but the simple truth is that people want their comforts. When it comes to cannabis it is only a question of whether they will get it from a legal dispensary that pays taxes and offers good jobs, or from that guy who went to high school with someone they know.
Coronavirus is revealing many truths, not the least of which is just how fragile is the legal marijuana industry. By designating every dispensary an essential business, we will make the legal industry stronger and push the unregulated black market a little bit further into the past.