Rosenthal Reports
Pot and the Coronavirus Pandemic

Last month the Rosenthal Report examined the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on the opioid epidemic, looking primarily at how the lockdown has made drug treatment more difficult to obtain, thereby increasing the risk of relapse and overdose for those struggling with substance abuse. This issue   focuses on the pandemic’s influence on marijuana consumption, public policy and the future of cannabis legalization.

It came as no surprise that pot sales spiked as states began issuing shelter-in-place orders. Across the country, both in states that have legalized pot and those that have not, consumers stocked up on enough cannabis products to see them through the quarantine. After many states took the unusual step of equating pot shops with grocery stores, pharmacies and gas stations in declaring them an “essential service,” marijuana enterprises ramped up online sales and home delivery options, to help customers avoid social contact.

Massachusetts was an exception. There, Governor Charlie Baker limited sales to medical marijuana, saying he didn’t want tourists flocking to his state specifically to buy recreational cannabis, thus increasing the risk of the virus spreading. As a result, registrations for medical marijuana rose 247 percent in just a few weeks. The marijuana industry also responded to Baker’s decree by suing to have the ban lifted. But a judge ultimately rejected their argument—a clear win for states to regulate markets to ensure public health and safety.  

Such defeats have not stopped the industry from pushing its agenda. The cannabis lobby is urging Congress to allow federal coronavirus relief to aid cannabis-related activities, which is now federally prohibited. Such appropriation would be unwise, given the possible link between vaping and smoking marijuana—which can compromise pulmonary function—and negative respiratory outcomes from COVID-19, especially among younger patients.

Looking ahead, the pandemic will likely stall further efforts to legalize marijuana (currently, 22 states allow medical use and 11 states plus Washington, D.C. permit recreational adult use.) Before the virus struck, more than a dozen states—including New York—were set to vote on liberalizing medical and recreational cannabis laws by the end of the year; today, only a few are likely to go ahead. Social distancing rules have stopped petition-signing campaigns by pro-pot advocates, while politicians obviously remain preoccupied with the pandemic.

Given the current state of affairs, the Rosenthal Center repeats its call for a pause on further marijuana legalization. This would provide an opportunity to closely study the effects on consumption patterns and users’ health in legalized states—and time to analyze the impact of existing regulations and restrictions, and determine what further precautions might be needed. If legalization does go ahead it is critical that sensible rules governing the marijuana market be established—based on facts that are unfortunately in short supply.

4th May 2020
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