Cannabis in the Time of Coronavirus

Editor’s Note: Today we’re continuing our investigation of drugs under quarantine. Contributing editor Bob Beach reports on the impact of the coronavirus on cannabis’s biggest holiday, 4/20, and the marijuana marketplace as a whole. 

We are more than a week removed from what was to be the greatest 4/20 party ever. It came and went and hardly anyone noticed. Of course, that’s because most of us were either stuck at home, subject to various lock-down orders and social distancing recommendations or working (as newly designated “essential” workers), all during a global pandemic. 

This was perhaps a result of the combined efforts of the pot industry, pot advocacy groups, and famous pot rebels like Willie Nelson and Snoop Dogg advocating widespread compliance with lockdown orders and offering alternative celebrations via the suddenly-ubiquitous Zoom (check out the list on Billboard.com, and RollingStone.com). With a few exceptions, 4/20 celebrants largely remained at home.

The relatively orderly course of events on the biggest holiday of the cannabis calendar (directly contrasted by right-wing groups protesting “government overreach” against public health measures in various cities) could lead some to conclude that marijuana has finally established itself as a respectable part of the culture and is here to stay. And while indications do appear to favor the marijuana cause at first, there are a lot of uncertainties about the short and long term consequences of Covid-19 on (pretty much everything, but also) the continuing saga of marijuana in the United States.

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Willie Nelson hosted his “Come And Toke It” party on April 20th

First, the nature of the 4/20 celebrations indeed reflect a fairly mature commercial respectability of marijuana use, demonstrated by the various commercial tie-ins to, and sponsorships of, the online events hosted on mainstream platforms like Instagram, Twitch, Facebook Live, and, of course, Zoom. Snoop’s smoke-in was celebrating the first-time digital release of Dr. Dre’s 1992 classic “The Chronic.” Weedmaps, a popular website that connects pot users to local dispensaries, sponsored a “Higher Together Sessions From Home” celebration featuring Wiz Khalifa and other performers.

The precise numbers are hard to quantify, and the various issues regarding access and legality (as described last week on Points) make it impossible to draw clear conclusions, but it’s clear that in these trying times, marijuana is among the many substances being recommended by friends, family, and other word-of-mouth sources as a palliative and coping substance during the crisis. Following initial surge in cannabis sales mid-March, as states began to enact various stay-at-home orders and while questions about the status of dispensaries were still up in the air, sales appear to remain high. A report on MarketWatch.com, however, suggests that the industry’s ability to weather the long term storm remains to be seen.

Of course, changes are likely to come. For one, it is becoming clear that people with underlying conditions, specifically underlying lung conditions (like COPD or asthma) are more susceptible to serious complications, and folks who smoke their drug of choice (many marijuana users fall in this camp) place themselves at higher risk. The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) has highlighted the potential implications for covid-19 complications with people with substance-use disorders and they emphasize harm-reducing alternatives to smoking. Edible makers are seeing demand surge (see last week’s post again).

On the other hand, the continuation of overblown claims of cannabis’s efficacy have only been exacerbated by coronavirus. One of the more publicized incidents involved former NFL player Kyle Turley, (mentioned in a prior piece on this site) who came under fire for touting cannabis and CBD products as preventatives and treatments for the disease. His company, NeuroXPF received a letter from the FDA and FTC for “Unapproved and Misbranded Products Related to Coronavirus Disease” ordering it to change its website’s claims. According to an LA Times article in early April, Turley has divested himself from the company and vows to continue his advocacy as a private citizen.

The pandemic will also slow legislative efforts to expand legal access to new places, as states with legalization measures in the works (like New York State and Nebraska) have already indicated prioritizing more pressing legislative matters. To be sure, organizers of the online 4/20 events recognized the need to continue advocacy work. Willie Nelson’s party raised money for the Last Prisoner Project. Also raising money for the project, Venice, CA dispensary owner Miss Grass, had a zoom party and virtual smoke session which was preceded by a day-long series of conversations relevant to users. NORML, celebrating its 50th anniversary, included a personal message from Erik Altieri, NORML’s Executive Director, about the organization’s goals, challenges, and history.

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The “Miss Grass Summit 4/20″ schedule of zoom events

And while the move to adjust state-level access to cannabis could be explained by many other factors, the direction of regulatory changes at the very least reveals cannabis advocates and state-level interests somewhat in sync. On March 16th, Americans for Safe Access published a letter to governors urging the continued access to medical marijuana for patients. Their letter urged state governments to consider cannabis dispensaries essential businesses, and that states prioritize aspects of the business to promote the continued access for patients. The Marijuana Policy project published a similar letter on March 20th which also emphasized prioritizing medical supplies over recreational ones.

Brief analysis of the various changes instituted by several states during the lock-down period (Marijuana Policy Project has a state-by-state accounting) raises several important questions that go beyond health, economic, and legislative issues, and reveals significant weaknesses in cannabis regulations, that might be upended by coronavirus.

But for the most part, governors have heeded advocates’ advice. Recreational dispensaries remain open in most legal states, and have converted to either curbside or delivery service. In both California and Colorado, recreational dispensaries were initially closed only to reopen soon after backlash and crowds appeared, in one case, to panic buy at Denver dispensaries. In Massachusetts however, recreational dispensaries remain closed, after a lawsuit filed on behalf of the dispensaries to remain open, failed in court, but medical facilities have remained open and have dramatically increased access for patients.

In an effort to assure continued supplies to patients in need, states have enacted many of the policies promoted by activists. States have been providing information on the safe operation of dispensaries and regulations have been loosened in many states (notably CO, ME, MD, MI, NH, NJ, OH, WA) to help facilities comply with safe social distancing guidelines. Changes include limiting the occurrence of required testing of samples, suspending fingerprint requirements (especially for new hires), and the temporary suspension of a number of regulations that prevent phone/online ordering and curbside/delivery service (as in CO, IL, MI, OH, OR).

States have also significantly loosened obstacles to medicinal access. Applications for medicinal cards have jumped (specifically MA, as recreational dispensaries have limited legal access) in response to relaxed eligibility criteria. Several states eliminated the requirement of a physical exam to get a marijuana card, allowing telemedicine consultations as adequate substitutes.

But as state governments ease regulations and seek to “increase access” (a red flag term, according to one Points contributor), it begs the question about why these seemingly arbitrary regulations existed to begin with. The requirements that need to be fulfilled to get access to medical marijuana are far higher than those for most other regulated substances, and the relative ease with which states are conceding to these requests point to their arbitrary origins.

And their racist origins.

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The cover of the ACLU report features this graph

Also on 4/20, the ACLU released a report: “A Tale of Two Countries: Racially Targeted Arrests in the Era of Marijuana Reform” (a follow-up to the 2013, “The War on Marijuana in Black and White”). The latest report reiterates that, across all geographic categories, and despite similar use rates, people of color continue to be arrested at much higher rates than whites. But more than simply demonstrating an utter failure to address the racial disparities in the 2013 report, the report’s title (and its simple but effective cover page) evokes the Kerner Report and is a stark reminder that the United States has neglected well publicized racial disparities in policing for over fifty years, and since it’s clear that covid-19-related trauma will fall disproportionately on people of color, these statistics will only get worse.

But without a doubt, it’s possible that one of the most profound changes to marijuana in the coming years will be much more subtle. 4/20 was supposed to be a social celebration, and cannabis tends to be a social drug. During the covid crisis, social distancing requirements, in addition to requiring physical distance, precludes activities that are ritual staples among stoners like passing bongs/joints/blunts and sharing your stash. It remains to be seen how the pandemic will alter the marijuana landscape (I look forward to seeing how the paraphernalia industry will adjust, for instance), but for now, coronavirus will certainly foster more isolated use, and these changes to the prevailing set and setting for cannabis use will also have a profound impact.

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