If cannabis is an essential service, why is it still illegal?
As a wave of coronavirus-mandated regulations shuttered businesses across the globe, pot dispensaries have remained open. But the free access of weed during a crisis has made some people bristle, demanding to know, is cannabis essential now?
It’s a good question. How can something that’s illegal one place be considered essential just a few miles away? The logic doesn’t quite work. But nothing with cannabis is ever easy, and this is no exception. Trying to decide if medical and/or recreational cannabis should qualify as a necessity speaks to the scientific, social, and economic values a society holds.
It forces both pro- and anti-cannabis activists to weigh serious questions about the kind of risks a society can ask of people during a crisis, and what kind of benefits are worth those risks.
Is Cannabis Essential?
Let’s take the problem one piece at a time, beginning with the most-accepted stance. Every Canadian province and legalized American state decided to leave medical cannabis dispensaries open during the crisis.
This was a no-brainer. Legalized medicinal cannabis means accepting that weed is effective medicine, and people need healing no matter what kind of catastrophe is ripping the world apart.
People with serious conditions, such as cancer and childhood epilepsy, rely on medicinal cannabis to treat their diseases and restore their quality of life.
Morally speaking, shutting down those programs would be cruel. Legally, it could open governments to nasty lawsuits. How can a municipality decide which legal medicines are worthwhile and which are not? Allowing some medicine to be sold during the Covid-19 panic means allowing all of them.
And practically, allowing patients to treat their pain with cannabis instead of opioids has loads of benefits, including saving lives.
The Recreational Dilemma
When California became the first U.S. state to impost stay-at-home orders, it was quick to provide a list of businesses that would be exempt. The list included cannabis shops selling both legal and recreational weed.
State officials must have mulled over the question, “Is cannabis essential?” and decided that not only was cannabis essential as medicine, but its recreational value was too great to deny citizens during a pandemic. Probably, also, its tax injection.
California wasn’t the only state to reach that conclusion. Oregon, Nevada, Washington, Colorado, Alaska, Illinois, and Michigan all decided that recreational pot shops should remain open for business.
Why did they feel that way?
First, look at the other companies that made the cut. Grocery stores, alcohol sellers, pharmacies, gas stations, hospitals, utilities, take-out restaurants — all businesses that keep people alive and allow them access to necessary measures.
Many state governments sided with recreational cannabis, noting that it’s less harmful than alcohol, and may help people cope with the stress of social distancing and uncertain economic times.
But not every state came to the same answer to the question, “Is cannabis essential?”
The Colorado Flip-Flop
Originally, the mayor of Denver decided to shutter recreational dispensaries — but reversed the decision after just a few hours due to a public outcry and the long lines winding around pot shops’ blocks so patients could stock up while the doors were open. The state’s governor later declared all pot shops essential.
But even public furor couldn’t change the minds of governments in Washington, D.C., and Massachusetts, among others. Pennsylvania went so far as to keep alcohol off limits for a while, before revising that decision. Clearly, there was no prevailing wisdom to govern pot regulations.
When administrators weighed the decision to shut down pot shops, it’s clear they weren’t considering science. The decision was emotional. When they tried to answer, “Is cannabis essential?” they considered the political, economic, and social dimensions as strongly as the scientific.
Arguments For and Against Essentialism
Many pro-recreational cannabis activists claim that it functions the same way over-the-counter medicine does. People don’t need to see a doctor to buy aspirin, even if their arthritis has bothered them for years. Instead, people are allowed to self-medicate.
Even cannabis patients who see doctors often feel like they’re self-medicating because of the lack of understanding many doctors feel with weed. As long as pharmacies are open, allowing people to treat their problems without a doctor’s orders, cannabis patients should also have access to the same benefits. Or so the thinking goes. Some people, however, don’t buy it.
“But,” people protest, “some people are using cannabis for non-medical reasons! They just want to get high!”
And what’s wrong with that? No one is using alcohol and tobacco for medical purposes, but shops are still selling them. Why should the rules be different for weed? The normal knock against getting high, that it makes people comfortable staying on the couch, is downright positive during the pandemic.
There’s also the economic argument. Keeping pot shops open brings in more money. It keeps people employed and rakes in much-needed tax revenue. There’s little chance the black market will close, so why should states, and legitimate businesses, give up that money? If consumers are going to buy cannabis anyway, it ought to be the right way.
What is Essential, Anyway?
Any rubric for judging items essential or not should answer questions such as: Does this keep people alive? Does it alleviate sicknesses and help prevent disease? Will a great many people be hurt without it?
Cannabis passes each question with flying colors. It clearly provides a function that keeps consumers healthy and happy. It’s better at both than alcohol, and safer than cigarettes.
It’s medicine for the body and the mind. If that’s not essential, what is?