During the tumultuous weeks and months of the past year, a nine-letter word emerged as a game changer for the nation’s legal marijuana industry: “essential.”
It began about a week after the World Health Organization on March 11 declared the COVID-19 outbreak a global pandemic.
That’s when California announced a statewide business lockdown, followed by Illinois.
Both states also designated marijuana operators as “essential” – along with pharmacies, supermarkets and liquor stores – and those businesses were allowed to stay open.
California and Illinois were soon followed by dozens of other states that declared marijuana operators as “essential businesses.”
In all, nearly 30 states with functional marijuana markets – as well as the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico – deemed marijuana businesses as essential.
The rush of “essential” designations in the early weeks of the pandemic proved to be one of the most momentous moments in the timeline of the nation’s legal marijuana industry – and it arguably helped lead to the creation of new state-legal MJ markets that are projected to generate billions of dollars in sales.
By casting marijuana as “essential,” states put the cannabis industry in the same category as pharmacies, hospitals and other sources of legitimate medicine.
In short, cannabis went from an alternative treatment to an essential medicine, giving it a major upgrade in credibility. State regulators and health experts sanctioned that upgrade.
Moreover, states put marijuana on the same footing as a federally legal industry, alcohol.
“The hope was that with the ‘essential’ designation, there would be more recognition that cannabis was here to stay, that there was strong consumer preference for it,” said Steve Hawkins, executive director of the Washington DC-based Marijuana Policy Project and CEO of the U.S. Cannabis Council.
“I think that’s been borne out by the amount of usage over this pandemic period.”
Liesl Bernard, CEO of Cannabiz Team, a marijuana-focused recruitment firm in San Diego, agreed.
“The fact that you couldn’t go to your hairdresser but you could go to a dispensary opened a lot of people’s eyes that this is an industry that’s here to stay,” Bernard said.
She added that the “essential” designation has spurred greater interest among professionals for working in the cannabis industry, especially at a time when many of those professionals have lost jobs in other industries.
“They see that it’s ‘essential,’ they see retail sales are up, and so they see that it’s going to be the next big industry,” Bernard said.
The “essential” designation triggered other major changes in the marijuana industry:
- It further destigmatized the drug among consumers.
- Regulators in many states mandated business-friendly safety measures such as curbside pickup and home delivery.
- State health authorities gave physicians the green light to write recommendations for…
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