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How COVID-19 Is Changing Cannabis – Forbes

Since the COVID-19 pandemic took hold of the U.S. last month, the legal cannabis industry has transformed the crisis into an opportunity to demonstrate maturity, dismantle biases, and solidify its role in the economy, communities, and people’s lives. While challenges persist, the last six weeks have represented a major leap forward for the sector that will help position it for long-term success in several ways.

An Essential Business

The cannabis industry immediately notched a significant victory when states announcing shutdowns almost unanimously declared medical cannabis businesses “essential” during the pandemic, allowing them to stay open. Some also provided for continuing adult-use sales, although often with restrictions geared toward health and safety. For example, in Colorado, adult-use sales are limited to curbside pickup and in Nevada, adult-use cannabis can only be purchased via home delivery.

And by declaring cannabis “essential” in certain states, regardless of whether for medical or adult-use sales, state and local authorities made an important statement on a number of levels. First, this designation helped blunt negative bias that has been associated with cannabis, including the legal variety, for a long time. Now, legal cannabis is treated like traditional pharmaceuticals and, in places where adult-use retailers have been designated “essential”, like groceries. Second, it conceded that these products are necessities for the people who use them, especially for medicine, which is squarely at odds with the stigmas of criminality and vice that have plagued the industry.

The “essential” classification is validating for the many who find relief from various ailments through legal cannabis products. It is a victory for patients and consumers as well as for dispensaries and retailers.

New Regulatory Maturity

The “essential” classification also signals regulatory maturity, particularly in some of the more entrenched markets like Oregon and Colorado.

Based on my experience working in and observing the industry, no less than five years ago, regulators and licensees often treated each other with suspicion – and in many cases, even outright animosity. But today, regulators and the cannabis industry are working together in lockstep to keep businesses open. In just the few weeks since the stay-at-home orders were implemented, we have seen many states release emergency measures or guidance, including provisions allowing for curbside pickup, delivery, expedited ID cards, or telehealth.

For the cannabis industry, this is happening at lightning speed. Where it usually takes several years for this trust to build, these quick turnarounds of new rules signify that each side has learned to collaborate with and trust the other.

The Cash Problem

The World Health Organization has warned that handling money could contribute to the spread of COVID-19. Some businesses, like Chick-fil-A and local restaurants all across the country, have responded by encouraging cashless payments or banning cash outright.

This presents a unique challenge for legal cannabis businesses. They are cash-only because cannabis remains illegal at the federal level, thus prohibiting the industry from working with traditional federally overseen banks and credit card companies, which cross state lines. That makes cannabis businesses a target for criminals, even in normal times. Today, the potential for thefts and robberies increases because cash is changing hands at curbside. And so does the potential for spread of the virus. The crisis has only highlighted the cash-only problem.

It is ironic that cannabis businesses deemed “essential” cannot operate like businesses in any other established industry, whether it’s having accounts at traditional banks or being able to process credit cards. A bill that passed the U.S. House in the fall, the SAFE Banking Act, will help to rectify this situation, but the Senate has not taken it up and the President would still need to sign it into law. The current crisis has spurred advocates of the legislation into renewed action to try and pass it. Who knew that passage of the SAFE Banking Act would actually have public health effects, too?

Looking Ahead

If there are any bright spots to find for the legal cannabis industry in the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, they would be the collaboration between cannabis businesses and regulators and the continued trajectory for sales at the retail level. If the cannabis sector can make this kind of progress during a time of crisis, just imagine what’s ahead when we’re beyond it.

Written by homegrownreview

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