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Matt Maurer speaks to The London Free Press on cannabis businesses being deemed essential

Matt Maurer, of Torkin Manes' Cannabis Law Group, speaks to The London Free Press on cannabis businesses being deemed essential.

There’s been plenty of “essential” talk throughout the COVID-19 outbreak. As separate regions around the world battle to stop the spread of the virus through self-imposed (and sometimes mandated) isolation, the needs of our day-to-day lives have become classified as either non-essential or essential.

One of the unexpected conversations to emerge from all of this has been over the degree to which cannabis is essential — with several regions classifying it as a necessity, others dismissing it and some going back and forth between deeming it unnecessary and essential.

In Canada, there are some common threads to what is considered an essential service. The federal government, for instance, defines an essential service as “any service, facility or activity of the Government of Canada (that) is or will be necessary for the safety or security of the public or a segment of the public.”

The provinces mostly follow suit. In B.C., it’ s defined as “daily services essential to preserving life, health, public safety and basic societal functioning,” while Manitoba’s meaning relates to services necessary to enable the government to prevent, among other things, “danger to life, health or safety.” PEI’s defines it as “services that the interruption of which would endanger the life, health or personal safety of the whole or part of the population.”

In Ontario, as per a recent order by the provincial government, an essential business is one on which the public relies in day-to-day life. Infamously, cannabis retail initially fell under the provincial list of essential businesses, was then dropped and, finally, the province allowed private retail stores to re-open with conditions. The initial delisting of cannabis put Ontario out of step with several other provinces, including B.C.AlbertaSaskatchewanManitobaQuebec and New Brunswick.

In the U.S., California, Colorado, Illinois, Washington, Oregon and Michigan are some of the states allowing both medical and recreational dispensaries to stay open, while several others have made medical marijuana an essential service, according to Marijuana Moment. Meanwhile, other states like Massachusetts have forced closures of recreational cannabis shops, and now find themselves embroiled in lawsuits.

Whether or not cannabis should be considered essential ultimately boils down to two major factors. The most seemingly obvious has to do with its medical use. At first glance, prescriptions are as essential as it gets — and few would argue otherwise. The issue is complicated, however, by the fact that once legalization occurred in different regions, the need for prescriptions in those areas was diminished.

“A lot of medical patients, when the storefronts started opening, made a decision to not purchase directly through their medical suppliers because the product is, for all intents and purposes, the same,” Matt Mauer, a partner at Torkin Manes LLP and co-chair of its Cannabis Law Group, recently told The GrowthOp. “So for some people, it’s not recreational; it is medical.”

At a time when everyone is under pressure and forced into unusual circumstances, determining who needs cannabis and who doesn’t would be a murky operation to say the least. “How do you define if somebody’s using it for stress or anxiety or they can’t sleep because of COVID-19, because their stress level is through the roof?” Mauer asks. “Is it medicine or is it recreational? Who is going to make that determination?”

The second major factor surrounds what actually happens once cannabis goes from being accessible to not. Instead of people no longer using cannabis, would they be more likely to seek it out in the illicit market? If so, would closing shops out of concern for public health actually make anyone safer?

Alia Volz, author of Home Baked: My Mom, Marijuana and the Stoning of San Francisco, takes medical cannabis seriously. Despite the predictable jokes following a tweet from San Francisco’s Department of Public Health classifying medical cannabis as “essential medicine,” Volz notes in an article for Salon that people need to view “safe and legal access (as) a public health concern.”

“Given the facility with which casual contact spreads coronavirus, driving consumers to the black market for cannabis could only result in unsafe, unregulated transactions,” she writes.

It’s eye-opening (or perhaps frustrating, depending on where you live) to look back on pre-pandemic thinking in terms of cannabis. Following legalization, the essential label was moot. But now, like so many other aspects of everyone’s lives, it’s become an issue that demands being publicly questioned and discussed.

All of this suggests that the issues surrounding cannabis use — stigmas, public perception and knee-jerk reactions — weren’t suddenly dissolved by widespread legalization. It might have taken a pandemic to remind us, but there remains a need for advocacy.

This article was originally published in The London Free Press.

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