Public support for marijuana legalization and regulation has been increasing steadily nationwide for years. But the recent decision of elected officials in California and elsewhere to embrace cannabis during the COVID-19 pandemic has solidified its status as part of the mainstream fabric of America.

Regulators and lawmakers in dozens of states have designated licensed cannabis providers and their suppliers as “essential services” to the health and well-being of their communities. By taking these actions, facilities are able to stay open and provide service to their clientele during statewide or countywide “stay-at-home” mandates.

In many jurisdictions, officials have relaxed existing protocols to facilitate expanded cannabis access for the public – such as by permitting patients to seek telemedicine appointments and allowing dispensaries to provide curbside pick-up and home delivery.

Thus far, these actions have been largely seen as non-controversial and have received little pushback from government officials or the general public. According to national polling, most Americans support dispensaries’ new status. It’s not hard to understand why.

Thirty-three states and Washington, D.C., regulate medical cannabis for qualified patients, and 94 million Americans reside in a jurisdiction where the possession and use of cannabis by adults is state-regulated. Several million residents are enrolled in state-specific medical cannabis access programs. The broader cannabis industry employs an estimated 240,000 full-time workers – more than four times the number of employees who work in the coal industry.

National polling finds that 93 percent of citizens approve of the use of medical cannabis when it is authorized by a doctor, and 68 percent of Americans – including majorities of Democrats, independents and Republicans – believe that marijuana ought to be legal for all adults. Overall, some one in seven adults self-identify as cannabis consumers. In California, at least 5% of adults acknowledge using cannabis to treat symptoms of a medical condition.

Many are using cannabis therapeutically for the treatment of chronic pain, spasticity or other conditions for which it has well-established efficacy. Furthermore, many of these consumers are seniors and are among those at greatest risk for COVID-related complications.

This is why state regulators here and elsewhere have wisely decided to take steps to provide and maintain these consumers with access to state-regulated, lab tested cannabis products. They recognize that these vulnerable persons must not be abruptly cut off from their established supply chains or inadvertently directed toward the illicit market during this crisis, as the products available there may potentially be tainted or adulterated and may further compromise patients’ health. They also recognize that many patients cannot afford to stockpile months of medicine at one time, and therefore will need to continue to make frequent trips to dispensaries.

In short, regulators’ actions acknowledge that for many Americans, and for chronically ill patients especially, cannabis is not some alternative on-the-fringe therapy option, but rather an essential medicine – one that must be recognized and protected accordingly, particularly during a time of crisis.

For decades, federal officials have refused to make this same acknowledgment. Instead, they have maintained their “Flat Earth” assertion that cannabis is without any therapeutic utility whatsoever.

In recent weeks, the actions of state governments and regulators have exposed the federal government’s scientifically bankrupt stance. In the coming months, federal officials will have little choice but to rethink their position. Indeed, the rest of America already has.

Paul Armentano is the deputy director for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), He lives in Vallejo. He wrote this commentary for CalMatters.


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