Coronavirus Leaves Some States Wondering ‘What If’ on Cannabis Reform

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Facing mounting economic hardships in the wake of COVID-19, some leaders in the U.S. are now publicly lamenting not legalizing weed sooner.

The belief that desperate times can lead to creative thinking is fully on display in a world currently starving for solutions to a host of serious problems. 

Today, in the wake of COVID-19,  such innovation is taking many forms. There are spirits distilleries who have abruptly pivoted to making hand sanitizer. Being forced to shelter-in-place has also served as the progenitor behind a spate of new podcasts, specials, and more. On a larger scale, city and state economies throughout much of the U.S. are also being forced to consider all available options in the face of massive deficits and depleted rainy-day funds.

Some leaders, like New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lynn Lujan Grisham, are also lamenting the lost opportunity of having not taken a chance sooner. In New Mexico’s case, the topic at hand is a legalized cannabis market.

“If there was ever a time for wishful thinking,” Grisham said as part of a press conference late last month, “I wish we had passed recreational cannabis because that would be $100 million.”

 

While Grisham did clarify that her estimate of $100 million reflected calculations made before the outbreak of COVID-19, the details of the figure pale in comparison to the potential lifeline such a source of commerce would represent. Looking at the plausible timeline, New Mexico was never going to be in a position to get sales active prior to July, but the merit of Grisham’s conclusion is solid.

As various cities and states worry over economic hardships wrought by the COVID-19 health crisis, the appeal of instituting a “green rush” is continuing to gather steam in places big and small.

For example, emotions are running high in Milpitas, California. Though the city voted to ban cannabis businesses in 2018, the Milpitas City Council is now reportedly set to revisit the issue of placing a marijuana business sales tax measure on the November ballot. Having previously supported a similar effort two years ago, Milpitas Councilman Anthony Phan affirmed his affinity for the new measure as well while speaking with the San Jose Mercury News.

“Having a diverse revenue stream is always good for us,” Phan said, “especially in the fiscal position that we are in and the fiscal position that we will inevitably be in.”

In reality, the idea that legalizing cannabis will immediately lead to economic prosperity is unfortunately a gross oversimplification. When California legalized adult-use sales in 2018, then Gov. Jerry Brown predicted $1 billion in revenue for the state in its first full year. In fact, California earned just over $345 million from regulated cannabis sales in 2018. Ultimately, it would take until March of this year before the state would finally hit Brown’s lofty benchmark.

Even if implementing a legal weed market won’t result in a rapid surplus of funds, that doesn’t make it a bad idea. In addition, it’s somewhat remarkable to witness the change in perception seemingly happening in real-time. 

The evolution of cannabis from an evil of society to a possible means of jump-starting a state economy can be seen in pockets across the U.S. right now. In Kansas, Gov. Laura Kelly recently refused to dismiss the possibility of enacting medical marijuana in the state before the end of the year. Efforts are also underway in the U.S. Virgin Islands, where Gov. Albert Bryan Jr. has been vocal in his belief that legalized cannabis could help replenish the territory’s ailing retirement system.

As some leaders seek to prioritize cannabis legalization as a partial solution to financial troubles, other states are being forced to put their plans on hold. Legalization campaigns in Missouri, Idaho, and North Dakota have all been suspended for 2020. In most cases, the “choice” came as a result of an inability to gather the requisite signatures by deadline under shelter-in-place conditions. 

By contrast, the world may soon be welcoming several new international players to the cannabis market. In New Zealand, voters will be asked to decide on a legalization referendum in August, while Mexico continues to push its own deadline on a federal legalization effort. As of now, the earliest Mexico can enact legalization appears to be September.

The complexities of installing a legalized market make it obvious that rushing the job will likely only make things worse. Regardless, the number of cities, states, and even countries starting to consider, if not outright embrace, the potential economic benefits of selling legal weed is no anomaly. Instead, it speaks to a growing shift in public perception, one that suggests that perhaps pot really can help — and not just by getting us high.

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