Lockdown Lesson: Red Or Blue, Cannabis Is Essential

Marijuana has morphed from "Reefer Madness" to a life-sustaining business.”

As governors and state agencies issued pandemic shutdown orders and decided what was essential,” they typically put medical marijuana in the must-have category. Some states also listed recreational pot as essential, along with liquor.

Clearly worded state edicts are proof points that marijuana is migrating from scourge to acceptance.

State stay-home orders varied in content, reflecting parochial flavor (Arizona’s executive order said golfing was an essential outdoor activity).

But a common thread -- in red and blue states -- deemed cannabis essential and therefore, its workforce was exempted from lockdowns.

In the midst of COVID-19, we need to ensure medical marijuana patients have access to medication,” Pennsylvanias Secretary of Health Dr. Rachel Levine said March 20. Medical marijuana grower/processors and dispensaries are considered life-sustaining under the governors order for non-life-sustaining businesses to close. We want to be sure cardholders in the medical marijuana program can receive medication for one of the 23 serious medical conditions during this difficult time.”

The broader context

In March, stay-at-home orders boosted marijuana sales, with some outlets reporting single-day records.

Consumers pulled back by late March and early April, according to marijuana data tracker BDS Analytics. The pandemic could delay legalization efforts in new markets. 

Nearly half of marijuana advertising is placed in out-of-home media, according to Kantar media tracking.

Other media shy away from pot ads; broadcasters have federal licenses. Federal law still considers marijuana a controlled substance like heroin.

Marijuana's state-federal dichotomy appeared in sharp relief during the coronavirus crisis because billions in federal stimulus funds were off limits to cannabis enterprises. They were sidelined as other small businesses absorbed $349 billion in federal Paycheck Protection relief in the first half of April.

State Executive Orders

In addition to having no safety net in the COVID-19 pandemic, the cannabis industry faces other challenges including stiff taxation, lack of access to interstate financial services, and competition from illegal sales. But state-government designations as "essential" are a nudge toward mainstream treatment.

As cannabis moves to Main Street, state executive orders should make good reading for those trying to figure out how to regulate marijuana . . . and how it should be advertised. Here is a sampling:

Hawaii’s proclamation exempted “food, beverage, cannabis production, and agriculture.”

Similar language appeared in Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker’s order, deeming these businesses essential: “Food and beverage manufacturing, production, processing , and cultivation, including farming, livestock, fishing, baking, and other production agriculture, including cultivation, marketing, production and distribution of animals and goods for consumption; licensed medical and adult use cannabis dispensaries and licensed cannabis cultivation centers . . .”

New Jersey listed medical marijuana dispensaries with pharmacies (as essential).

Ohio said workers could leave their homes for medical marijuana dispensaries and cultivation centers.

California listed cannabis twice, says Meghan Loper of the California State Outdoor Advertising Association (as exempted healthcare workers and also agriculture workforce).

New York’s Department of Health said the medical marijuana program “will be considered essential and allowed to remain open” as a medical provider.

Montana’s governor listed licensed medical cannabis dispensaries and cultivation with reproductive health care providers, eye care centers, and home health services.  

As legalization expands, states will continue to scrutinize cannabis and how it is advertised. 

The dictionary says "essential" means absolutely necessary.

Absolutes and marijuana are subject to fair debate.

But it’s beyond debate that states’ designation of pot as essential represents yet another departure from its former status as an outlawed vice.

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