2020 was supposed to be a groundbreaking year in cannabis legalization throughout the country, and now these efforts are all but torched for the foreseeable future. The novel coronavirus has swept across the nation state by state, and it has damaged legalization efforts on every level.
Social distancing in the first place is keeping legislators from meeting–or even holding and signing paperwork–regarding legalization bills. “People are scared. They don’t want to touch a pen or paper,” Melissa Fults, executive director of Arkansas for Cannabis Reform said. “All we can do is sit and wait.”
Several states have put ballot referendums on hold indefinitely while they try to handle the current chaos of acquiring enough medical equipment for their hospitals and financial assistance for their residents. Most notable is New York, who had failed to pass legal cannabis in 2019 and swore to make it happen this year. Gov. Andrew Cuomo asserts that his state only has enough ventilators to get him through a couple more days, so I could imagine that getting smokable substances to the citizens he represents would be the last thing on his mind.
When asked about his promised efforts to legalize cannabis in New York, Cuomo said, “Too much [to deal with], too little time.”
This is in stark contrast to the cannabis economy, which is currently soaring. Patients are stockpiling left and right–fearful that they will lose access to their medication at some point–while recreational users are buying up whatever they can to help them pass the time in self isolation more enjoyably.
That brings me to the next big problem: even if people could get together to lobby, it’s extremely difficult for these advocacy groups to make a case for cannabis legalization when the primary form of cannabis use is through smoking and vaping marijuana. The National Institute on Drug Abuse recently announced, “Because it attacks the lungs, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 could be an especially serious threat to those who smoke tobacco or marijuana, or who vape.”
Smoking any substance is known to cause some level of inflammation to the lung and airways, the very area of the body that COVID-19 aggressively attacks. Illegal dealers in New York City alone have reported a 50 percent increase in sales since the outbreak of this pandemic, so it stands to reason that more and more people are putting themselves at higher risk than before, when they need to be at their healthiest. This does, at least, make a strong case for legalization in that people need access to safer methods of cannabis consumption, like edibles and beverages infused with THC.
Unfortunately, the canvassers–who would normally foresee these consequences and already be out there trying to amass signatures on petitions to campaign for legalization efforts–are stuck inside their own homes. Going door to door to collect signatures could bring COVID-19 right to people’s doors and transmit it to the canvassers as well. I won’t even get my mail without a can of Lysol spray in hand anymore; I definitely don’t want to touch a clipboard or tablet that’s been passed around to countless other people.
It’s safe to say that many states will be forced to table marijuana legalization until 2021 or even 2022, but some states with July deadlines–like Arizona, Arkansas and Nebraska–still have hope for some success as long as they can get back out in the field by early May. Grassroots organizers in Arkansas are brainstorming creative ways to canvas, like having people pull up to pop-up campaign drives and sign from their cars.
What we need to remember is the long-term game here. Cannabis legalization efforts may be getting pulverized right now, but the cannabis industry is taxed heavily, and when the economy is in a slump after all this is over, that extra cash flow will start looking mighty handsome to state and federal governments. The states that receive most of their revenue from oil and gas–now valued at record-breaking low prices–will be forced to seek funding elsewhere. It’s almost like New Mexico should consider diversifying its income! As with seemingly every other sector of life right now, we just have to hang in there and see what happens.