As state and local governments across the U.S. shutter businesses and prohibit gatherings in an attempt to limit the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, medical marijuana patients and advocates are urging policymakers not to close down cannabis dispensaries completely.
Such a move, they warn, would leave hundreds of thousands of patients stranded without access to medicine, and many would have no choice but to turn to the illicit market.
In an “emergency call to action” sent Monday to governors of legal medical marijuana states, Americans for Safe Access, a leading nonprofit medical cannabis advocacy group, asked the officials to take immediate steps to ensure that patients have access to products during a period of social distancing that has no clear end in sight.
Yesterday, we sent a letter to governors and directors of state medical cannabis programs asking them to take immediate action to ensure that patients continue to have access to medical cannabis and that the supply chain is not interrupted. #SafeAccesshttps://t.co/MjhTK4pkN1
— Americans4SafeAccess (@SafeAccess) March 17, 2020
The letter came the same day that San Francisco’s Department of Public Health ordered all dispensaries in the city closed, announcing that both storefront dispensaries and delivery services “are not considered an ‘essential business’” and will need to close as of Tuesday.
San Francisco cannabis dispensaries, briefly beneficiaries of coronavirus-induced buying panic, are now shuttered. Ordered closed starting tomorrow by order of city Department of Public Health, joining bars and restaurants. Delivery also banned. No medicine for patients. pic.twitter.com/IYknfvvZ9A
— Chris Roberts (@cbloggy) March 17, 2020
Other jurisdictions are taking more proactive approaches to meeting patient needs. In Pennsylvania, dispensaries are expected to remain open because they fall into the same classification as pharmacies. In Michigan and Illinois, officials have temporarily allowed curbside pickups at cannabis retail stores in order to allow medical patients and consumers access to marijuana while limiting the spread of the virus from person to person.
Medical marijuana dispensaries deemed "essential" and won't be told to close, according to PA Health Department. They're akin to pharmacies, said health spokesman. All bars, liquor stores and eat-in restaurants, however, have been asked to go dark for at least two weeks.
— sam wood (@SamWoodIII) March 14, 2020
In its letter to governors, ASA recommends that policymakers take steps now to protect cannabis patients and ensure they have access to medical marijuana in coming months. It lists eight measures to put into place “immediately to ensure that patients do not have disrupted access to their medicine”:
- Make sure that cannabis businesses that serve patients are considered “essential” businesses.
- Instruct medical cannabis businesses on how they can make legal temporary changes to their business plans, including delivery and purchase limits, to accommodate patients and staff during the crisis.
- Give tax relief to patients and businesses.
- Allow cultivation and processing centers to stay open to ensure a steady supply of medicine in the future.
- Extend the expiration dates of state-issued cannabis identification cards so that doctors and other health care providers can focus on COVID-19.
- Permit authorized caregivers to serve additional patients during the crisis period.
- Allow telehealth visits for new and renewing medical cannabis patients.
- Allow dispensaries to deliver medical cannabis to qualifying patients and caregivers in vehicles parked in the dispensary parking lots.
ASA is also asking concerned citizens to write to their governors, insisting that patient access to cannabis be protected during the pandemic.
Medical marijuana patients “represent some of the states’ most vulnerable citizens,” ASA interim Director Debbie Churgai said in the letter. “We are calling on states to take precautions now to help ensure that patients have access today and that measures are taken to ensure that the supply chain is not interrupted.”
Summit County and the towns in the county are ordering restaurants, bars and retail shops with general foot traffic to close at 10pm to slow the spread of COVID-19. Banks grocery stores, liquor stores, marijuana dispensaries, pharmacies and gas stations can stay open. #9News pic.twitter.com/yeEONKlrzD
— Matt Renoux (@MattRenoux) March 16, 2020
As officials scramble to determine which businesses can remain open during the outbreak, jurisdictions so far have taken a variety of approaches to marijuana availability, for both patients and adult non-medical consumers. In Massachusetts, medical dispensaries “have been advised they may consider the promotion and geographic expansion of delivery service,” the state Cannabis Control Commission said in a release last week, “and to remind patients of the ability to acquire up to a 60-day medical grade marijuana supply.
Dispensaries are to remain open in Puerto Rico, too, where the Department of Health announced on Monday that the medical cannabis industry will be excluded from the governor’s recent mandatory shutdown order there.
Parts of Colorado are also allowing dispensaries to stay open. Summit County, for example, will allow cannabis retailers to remain open, along with liquor stores, gas stations, banks, grocery stores and pharmacies.
And in the Netherlands, the country’s iconic coffeeshops are staying open, but they’re no longer social destinations. For the foreseeable future, only to-go sales are allowed.
— Hash Marihuana & Hemp Museum (@HempMuseumBCN) March 17, 2020
In other areas such as Washington State, individual businesses have adopted policies designed to limit interaction between visitors and avoid spreading coronavirus. Lines have begun to grow on sidewalks as stores restrict the number of people inside at one time. To help speed transactions, businesses are asking customers to place orders in advance through online menus.
Complicating the social-distancing effort is the fact that delivery services remain illegal in the state for both medical and adult-use marijuana, forcing patients and customers to show up in person. Home cultivation is allowed only for state-licensed medical patients.
Other cannabis-related efforts have seen obstacles as COVID-19 spreads through the country.
In California, organizers behind a proposed ballot initiative to expand cannabis access (including filmmaker Kevin Smith and actor Jason Mewes of “Jay and Silent Bob” fame) have asked officials to let them seek signatures online rather than in person.
In Washington, D.C., organizers also want to be able to collect signatures online for a measure that would decriminalize certain psychedelics. And throughout the country, uncertainty and fears of prolonged quarantines have led patients and consumers to flock to retail outlets.
Photo by Aphiwat Chuangchoem
USDA Approves Hemp Plans For Six Additional States And Three Indian Tribes
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has signed off on hemp plans for six additional states and three Indian tribes this month, with a new batch of approvals coming on Friday.
Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, New Mexico, Oklahoma and South Dakota each had their regulatory proposals accepted within the past two weeks, as did the Comanche Nation, the San Carlos Apache Tribe of Arizona and the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma.
That raises the total number of approved plans to 69.
USDA has been signing off on hemp proposals on a rolling basis over the past year. Last month, it accepted plans from Utah and the Torres Martinez Desert Cahuilla Indians.
The South Dakota Department of Agriculture (SDDA) has received final approval by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) for the South Dakota Industrial Hemp Plan.
— SD Dept of Ag (@SDAgriculture) October 16, 2020
Illinois and Oklahoma were among a group of states that USDA had asked to revise and resubmit their initial proposals in August.
While the agency released an interim final rule for a domestic hemp production program last year, industry stakeholders and lawmakers have expressed concerns about certain policies it views as excessively restrictive.
USDA closed an extended public comment period on its proposed hemp regulations earlier this month. Its initial round saw more than 4,600 submissions, but it said last month that it was reopening the feedback period in response to intense pushback from stakeholders on its original proposal.
The federal Small Business Administration (SBA) said last month that the new 30-day comment window is too short and asked USDA to push it back, and it also issued a series of recommended changes to the interim final rule on hemp, which it says threaten to “stifle” the industry and benefit big firms over smaller companies.
All told, it appears that USDA is taking seriously the feedback it’s received and may be willing to make certain accommodations on these particular policies. The department’s rule for hemp is set to take effect on October 31, 2021.
In July, two senators representing Oregon sent a letter to Perdue, expressing concern that hemp testing requirements that were temporarily lifted will be reinstated in the agency’s final rule. They made a series of requests for policy changes.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) wrote to Perdue in August, asking that USDA delay issuing final regulations for the crop until 2022 and allow states to continue operating under the 2014 Farm Bill hemp pilot program in the meantime.
Sen. Cory Gardner (R-CO) also called on USDA to delay the implementation of proposed hemp rules, citing concerns about certain restrictive policies the federal agency has put forward in the interim proposal.
The earlier pilot program was initially set to expire on October 31, but it was extended to September 2021 through a congressional continuing resolution that the president signed late last month.
The senators weren’t alone in requesting an extension, as state agriculture departments and a major hemp industry group made a similar request to both Congress and USDA in August.
Perdue has said on several occasions that DEA influenced certain rules, adding that the narcotics agency wasn’t pleased with the overall legalization of hemp.
Amid the coronavirus pandemic, hemp industry associations pushed for farmers to be able to access to certain COVID-19 relief loans—a request that Congress granted in the most recent round of coronavirus legislation.
While USDA previously said that hemp farmers are specifically ineligible for its Coronavirus Food Assistance Program, that decision was reversed last month. While the department initially said it would not even reevaluate the crop’s eligibility based on new evidence, it removed that language shortly after Marijuana Moment reported on the exclusion.
Two members of Congress representing New York also wrote a letter to Perdue in June, asking that the agency extend access to that program to hemp farmers.
Hemp farmers approved to produce the crop do stand to benefit from other federal loan programs, however. The department released guidelines for processing loans for the industry in May.
Meanwhile, USDA announced last week that it is planning to distribute a national survey to gain insights from thousands of hemp businesses that could inform its approach to regulating the industry.
AOC Wants To Work With Republicans To Legalize Marijuana And End War On Drugs
Democrats and Republicans might be divided on a number of major policy issues, but Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) said on Thursday that ending the drug war and legalizing marijuana are increasingly standing out as exceptions to hyper-partisanship in Congress.
The congresswoman made the point during a virtual town hall alongside cannabis reform ally Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), stating that since she took office, it’s been encouraging to see members on both sides of the aisle come together on issues concerning “civil rights policy and civil liberties,” including ending “drug prohibition laws.”
“We’ve been able to propose solutions on a wide spectrum towards decriminalization, towards legalization, and that is increasingly becoming a position that more Republicans are amenable to,” she said.
For example, her spending bill amendment to divert $5 million in funding from the Drug Enforcement Administration to an opioid treatment program was approved without opposition in the House last year, Ocasio-Cortez said.
“That’s defund before defund became a widespread demand that we heard this year—and Republicans supported it,” she said, referencing progressive calls to defund law enforcement amid protests over police killings of black Americans. “So there are some areas where you can find common ground.”
Blumenauer also said at the event that “part of why we are fighting so hard to eliminate the failed prohibition on cannabis is because that’s been a tool that’s been used against people of color in particular that has horrific consequences and helps fuel that prison pipeline that has wreaked such havoc on our communities.”
To that end, Ocasio-Cortez said that, beyond federally legalizing cannabis, it’s important for lawmakers to ensure that any regulated markets that emerge are structured in a way that encourages participation by communities most hurt under prohibition.
“There are different ways that we can go about legalizing cannabis in the United States, and you can go about it in a way that concentrates power in a [Big Agriculture] way that concentrates power in big banks and that cuts out small mom and pops,” she said. “And then there’s another path towards legalization where everyday people and especially the black and brown communities that have been disproportionately impacted by the war on drugs can be at the front of the line of enjoying the economic benefits of legalization.”
“I think we’re just so past due to make sure that we’re legalizing cannabis in the United States and that we’re expunging people’s records from the absolutely unjust war on drugs,” the congresswoman said. “It is an incredible priority.”
New York Will Legalize Marijuana By April And Regulate CBD-Infused Drinks, Governor’s Advisor Says
The top marijuana advisor to New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) says cannabis legalization legislation will again be introduced through the state budget in January, with the goal being to enact the reform by April. He also previewed state regulations for hemp-derived CBD products, including allowing infused drinks and food items.
During an interview with Canopy Growth Corp.’s David Culver on the company’s recently launched video series, “Under The Canopy,” Assistant Counsel Axel Bernabe talked about how efforts to legalize marijuana in surrounding states underscore the need for reform in New York. And he said the legislation the governor will be introducing will serve as a “model” for other states, prioritizing social equity and economic development.
In this episode of #UnderTheCanopy we speak to Axel Bernabe of @NYGovCuomo's office who answered our questions on New York’s upcoming #hemp regulations, #cannabis #legalization, and the Gov.’s pandemic response. Watch here: https://t.co/5SzWFMnFSU
— Canopy Growth (@CanopyGrowth) October 14, 2020
But he also recognized that neighboring New Jersey may beat the Empire State to the punch, as voters are positioned to approve a legalization referendum next month.
“We’re watching New Jersey closely. We’ve always been confident that we get to this before New Jersey, so if they pass the referendum they still have to have agreement between the governor the Senate over there,” he said, referring to necessary implementing legislation that will need to be approved if voters pass the ballot question. “We’re working on this. We’re going to reintroduce this in our budget in January. We think we can get it done by April 1.”
That said, a top New Jersey senator recently indicated that lawmakers in the Garden State could pass the enacting bill as soon as the first week of November.
Over in New York, Cuomo has included legalization in his budget proposal for the last two years, but negotiations have consistently stalled out in the legislature, with sticking points such as how cannabis tax revenue will be allocated preventing a deal from being reached.
“If Jersey can beat us to it, then they’ll get the gold star—but I still think we’re going to set the model here.”
Bernabe said he’s especially excited about the public safety and economic development components of the administration’s forthcoming legalization proposal. And he spoke about the need to ensure social equity for communities historically targeted by the war on drugs, adding that there will be some changes from this year’s version in light of other states’ experiences.
“I would say equity pervades the entirety of the bill. It pervades it on the licensing front, it’s on the revenue side and the use of funds and providing capital and loans,” he said.
Also in the interview, Bernabe talked about pending regulations for hemp-derived cannabinoids. While those who grow the crop for fiber, seeds and other agricultural purposes are covered under existing rules, he said the administration is “literally putting the final tweaks” on policies for consumer CBD products that will take effect at the beginning of 2021.
“We’re excited because we’ve taken the bull by the horns so to speak. I think people recognize that there are a lot of sectors or product lines that haven’t really had some thorough regulation attached to them,” he said. “You can pick a number of them but probably the most high-profile or obvious ones are something like vapes—so CBD or other cannabinoid extract vapes. Flower, even some tinctures, and foods and beverages.”
“How do you regulate that? What are the parameters around it? What’s permissible? What’s not?” he said. “We dug deep. I don’t know that we’ll get everything right. We had to make some calls.”
NY is on the cusp of opening their hemp market – but what went into the regulatory process to make this a reality? Axel Bernabe from @NYGovCuomo's office discusses this & all things cannabis-related in this episode of #UnderTheCanopy Click here to watch: https://t.co/5SzWFMnFSU pic.twitter.com/HEK351bG5o
— Canopy Growth (@CanopyGrowth) October 18, 2020
The administration official offered an example of a regulation they’re likely to pursue that other states have avoided: creating rules for cannabinoid-infused drinks and food items.
“We think of this in terms of consumer protection. Those products are already out there. There’s no sense in trying to pretend they’re not,” he said, adding that one way they’re planning to ensure those protections is to set a maximum 25 milligram CBD dose per serving.
“We’re really doing it across the board on this,” Bernabe said. “We’re really looking at every product class and trying to strike a balance between consumer protection and letting people have what they’re obviously using extensively for health and wellness.”
As the administration finalizes those rules, the state’s hemp industry also recently got some news about broader regulations. Since a congressional continuing rider signed by the president last month extends the 2014 Farm Bill pilot program for the crop until next September, the New York Agriculture Department said it will similarly allow hemp businesses to continue to operate under the existing program until September 30, 2021.
“With so much uncertainty right now, we applaud [the department’s] move to extend these rules,” Allan Gandelman, president of the New York Cannabis Growers and Processors Association, said in a press release on Wednesday.
Photo courtesy of Mike Latimer.