Cannabis: Public safety guidelines and policy recommendations

Cannabis: Public safety guidelines and policy recommendations
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The COVID-19 outbreak is impacting the lives of all Americans. In recent weeks, our leadership has been asked to address numerous policy issues surrounding the state-licensed cannabis industry as well as the health and welfare of the estimated 14 percent of Americans who self-identify as current cannabis consumers. 

Safety first 

As long as cultures have consumed cannabis, the practice of sharing a joint or a pipe among friends has been a common social practice. But given what we know about COVID-19 and its transmission, we believe that it is mindful during this time to halt this behavior.  


The cannabis community should be similarly precautions when it comes to various other conduits for consuming marijuana, including the use of bowls, bongs, and vape pens. Avoid direct sharing and continually keep your personal collection clean; using 90 percent + Isopropyl Alcohol is an effective and affordable way to clear any germs or pathogens off your pieces. Because COVID-19 is a respiratory illness, consumers, and in particular, those patients who may be susceptible to greater health risks, should either limit or altogether avoid their exposure to combustive smoke of any kind. Alternative delivery devices, such as vaporizer heating devices can significantly mitigate combustive smoke exposure, and of course, the use of edibles or tinctures can eliminate smoke exposure entirely.

To the extent that one is able, it is also best to know where your cannabis is coming from. Cannabis from the unregulated market may potentially possess molds, pesticides, or other unwanted adulterants that could hamper one’s immune system. Whenever possible, consumers should try to obtain a lab-tested, regulated product — though we fully understand that many people in our country still live in a state that enforces prohibition and this is not a realistic option for all consumers. This advice is especially pertinent for portable vaping devices (e.g., vape pens), as unregulated counterfeit vape products have been known to contain Vitamin E acetate and other dangerous additives that can harm the lungs. 

We also encourage cannabis consumers and others to beware of online misinformation surrounding the use of either whole-plant cannabis or CBD as a potential remedy for the COVID-19 virus. To be clear, there is as of yet no substantiated clinical data supporting either the prophylactic or therapeutic use of cannabis products in the treatment of COVID-19. In short, if something sounds too good to be true, it likely is too good to be true. 

Designating licensed medical cannabis providers as "essential services"

In recent days, regulators and elected officials in several jurisdictions throughout the country have designated state-compliant medical cannabis providers as ‘essential’ to the health and safety of the community. This classification permits these operations to stay open and to continue to provide important services to those patients who rely on them. 


This designation is appropriate. There are several million state-licensed medical cannabis patients in America. Because many of these patients are among our more vulnerable populations, it is essential that they maintain uninterrupted, regulated access to lab-tested products during this time. We commend the decisions of those policymakers who have insisted that these facilities be permitted to continue their day-to-day operations. It is urgent that regulators do not reverse their course. The elderly and others must not be forced to try to obtain cannabis in the illicit marketplace — and environment where the potency and quality of marijuana are largely unknown and could potentially pose significant risks to their users’ health and safety.

Further, in order to best protect the health of not only medical cannabis patients but also their providers, Regulators should permit these essential operators to engage in-home delivery and/or curbside pick-up so that patients may engage in social distancing, as recommended by the CDC and most local public health departments.

For those facilities that continue to maintain operations for on-site retail sales, we encourage them to engage in recommended best practices in order to keep both their employees and their customers safe. This includes frequent sanitization of shelving and other public spaces, limits on the total number of customers permitted to congregate together at one time, and potentially imposing specific hours of operation for elderly or other higher-risk patients. The clientele should also no longer be encouraged to touch or smell cannabis products or flowers prior to purchase. 

Unemployment protections and small business aid

 The state-licensed cannabis industry now employs more than 240,000 American workers. To put that total in context, the state-authorized cannabis marketplace employs over four times the number of American workers as does the coal industry

Yet, despite the economic and political progress that has been made in states around the country, marijuana is still defined by federal law as a Schedule I substance with no medicinal value and a high potential for abuse. In short, federal anti-drug laws continue to define the state-authorized cannabis industry and those who work in it, as drug felons. That is why these businesses continue to face undue discrimination under federal law, including the lack of access to banking services and a prohibition of standard business tax deductions

Because such discrimination exists in the cannabis industry, we immediately inquired as to whether marijuana-related workers would be denied unemployment benefits if they are either laid off or furloughed during this crisis. After investigating this issue, it is our understanding that workers who are employed by a licensed cannabis business that properly paid their unemployment insurance taxes should be protected and eligible to receive benefits if or when they lose their jobs. That is because individual states possess the primary authority to decide for themselves which industries are legally eligible to receive unemployment benefits.

By contrast, because of marijuana’s Schedule I status under federal law, state-licensed cannabis businesses will not be eligible for either financial assistance or low-interest loans under newly enacted federal legislation instructing the Small Business Administration to “provide capital and liquidity to firms affected by the coronavirus.”

In response to this decision, we're is working with our federal allies to call for an end for such discriminatory practices against the cannabis industry and those whose livelihoods depend upon it. 

Specifically, legislation has already been introduced by Small Business Committee Chairwoman Nydia VelazquezNydia Margarita VelasquezDemocrat slams Yellen for failing to appear at hearing Democrats, organizations push to end giving military-grade gear to police Biden announces more diverse judicial nominees, including George W. Bush-nominated judge MORE to end this discrimination: The Ensuring Safe Capital Access for All Small Businesses Act of 2019, HR 3540. This language has also been included in The Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvestment, and Expungement (MORE) Act, HR 3884, which passed the House Judiciary Committee last November on a bipartisan basis and awaits action by the full House of Representatives. The expeditious consideration of these provisions is encouraging the SBA to explicitly protect cannabis businesses and the consumers that they serve.

As we navigate this public health crisis, it is critically important that the emergency policies enacted be reflective of both best practices and the available science. We applaud many of the common-sense regulatory changes that have been implemented around the country thus far. At the federal level, to the extent it is possible, the Congress should work to remove those existing roadblocks and barriers that have been entrenched for decades with respect to cannabis so that further relief efforts may be targeted toward this important sector of the economy and those millions of Americans who are served by it.

Erik Altieri is the executive director or National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML). Paul Armentano is NORML’s deputy director. Justin Strekal is NORML’s director of public policy.