Coronavirus Reveals Cannabis Law Contradictions in DMV

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The Coronavirus has made it clear that critiques directed towards many of the systems in the United States are no longer up for debate. Suddenly, even some Republicans are suggesting socialism-tinged policies to address the pandemic and the need to get people out of jail, to put a pause on evictions, and hand over thousands to citizens is a not a question of if but when and how. The Coronavirus has laid bare the limits of a lack of universal healthcare, an over reliance on “means testing” for social services, a fetishistic obsession with the deficit, an outrageous carceral system, and even, state-by-state cannabis policy.

Amid a pandemic especially, varied cannabis policies present different types of problems for different types of cannabis consumers who want to use cannabis and remain safe and healthy. 

In Virginia, where the decriminalization of cannabis has only just been passed and medicinal cannabis only exists via the limited “affirmative defense,” there is no aboveground market at all. This means people who use cannabis rely on an illicit market which is not regulated or tested. How one’s cannabis is being handled or where it comes from is unknown, which is scary while we’re facing a highly contagious, airborne disease. For those who want—and especially those who need—cannabis, face-to-face transactions with illicit market dealers means both customer and seller cannot be held accountable. And selling and buying potentially puts people in the crosshairs of law enforcement who are being encouraged not to arrest but could still decide to put you in jail, where potential for Coronavirus exposure is especially high.

In Washington D.C., where the gray market means cannabis can be purchased via gifting, there is a bit less of a chance of being locked up but still no regulatory system for knowing precisely where your cannabis comes from and far less oversight on handling that cannabis properly. A complex and well-established delivery system—a creative workaround inspired by “gifting”—allows cannabis to be brought right to one’s front door, limiting social interaction and that’s good. And one benefit of D.C. is the ability to home cultivate, which means many people who use cannabis have access to cannabis without leaving their home which they can possibly share responsibility with those in need.

In Maryland, where there is medicinal cannabis, dispensaries remain open as “essential business” and the Maryland Medical Cannabis Commission has offered up protocols for purchasing and for caregivers who access cannabis for others. In this sense, the cannabis is presumably the most “safe”—as in, one knows where it comes from and an above ground business is responsible. However, those who do not have a caregiver do not have the ability to have cannabis delivered means they will need to leave the house. And Maryland does not allow home cultivation which means there is no “legal” way to grow one’s own cannabis for personal use. During a pandemic, had home cultivation been allowed, many medicinal cannabis patients could have been growing plants for years.

While cannabis had been until recently, illegal—and remains that way in many states—dispensaries are now considered an “essential business” and can remain open. At the same time, dispensaries are not currently able to receive any federal assistance during the pandemic because cannabis is considered a Schedule I drug on the federal level.

Last week, during a digital panel organized by Cannagather titled “Cannabis & COVID-19,” Baltimore’s Shanita Penny of Budding Solutions stressed that cannabis businesses will miss out on federal assistance because cannabis is considered illegal.

“The SBA [Small Business Administration] should be supporting and helping us to grow this industry and we’re seeing now the SBA step up for small businesses throughout the country but guess who does not have access to those funds and those programs? The cannabis industry,” Penny said. “It’s gonna be important for us to again have our policy makers legislate and regulate this industry and treat us as a business and not this kind of separate stepchild. We have these great programs for small businesses but not for the people who are employing and building businesses in this space.”

Penny noted that the Coronavirus has already moved legislators to think differently about cannabis and act quickly which is encouraging in terms of changes to how cannabis is restricted in the long-run, including legalization for adult use on a federal level.

“We’ve seen policymakers take this industry seriously. We’ve seen policymakers make sure that dispensaries are open to patients and consumers, while folks are stocking up on all of the other things they need to cope,” Penny said. “It’s important that patients and consumers still have access to safe medicine and so I have been relieved and pleasantly surprised to see the immediate changes to regulations surrounding delivery and curbside delivery and pick-up.”

As Marijuana Moment reported, a letter released last week and signed by the National Cannabis Industry Association, National Cannabis Roundtable, Minority Cannabis Business Association, Global Alliance for Cannabis Commerce and Cannabis Trade Federation and sent to leaders of the House and Senate called attention to the cannabis industry being ineligible for federal assistance.

“Our members follow strict regulations, create jobs, generate billions of dollars in tax revenue—including federal corporate tax revenue—and act as good corporate citizens,” the letter reads. “Yet it appears as if these businesses will not be eligible for the same loans available to other businesses in this country at risk due to the global pandemic.”

As noted in a recent newsletter from National Organization For Reforming Marijuana Laws (NORML), Small Business Committee Chairwoman Nydia Velazquez introduced HR 3540, the Ensuring Safe Capital Access for All Small Businesses Act of 2019. And there is also HR 3884, The Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvestment, and Expungement (MORE) Act, which includes similar language and has actually already passed the House Judiciary Committee and now needs to pass the House of Representatives.

“Now is not the time for Congress to think small,” NORML Political Director Justin Strekal said. “Including Chairwoman Velazquez’s proposal to have the SBA support small cannabis businesses would protect both American jobs and the consumers that they serve.”

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