The COVID-19 pandemic has shone a light on an uncomfortable truth when it comes to medical cannabis legalization: the policy is no guarantee that patients in need will be able to access marijuana if state lawmakers choose to prohibit homegrows.
In the 25 or so years since California became the first state in the US to legalize medical marijuana, a further 32 have followed suit. But of these 33 states with full (or close to full) medical marijuana legalization, 14 do not allow qualifying patients to grow their own cannabis plants.
Those 14 states which prohibit home cultivation are as follows:
- New Hampshire
- New Jersey
- New York
- West Virginia
A further three states (Arizona, Nevada and North Dakota) only permit home cultivation if the patient lives far enough away from a dispensary, while Arizona makes concessions for qualifying patients experiencing financial hardship.
The exceptions made by these latter four states suggest at several of the reasons why access to medical marijuana – even in states where it is legal – is challenging for many patients, and how the coronavirus outbreak has made it even harder.
For starters, and as Arizona acknowledges, medical cannabis is expensive. Even if a person is lucky enough to have health insurance, it won’t cover their medical marijuana bills since cannabis remains federally prohibited. Medical marijuana patients across the country, from Ohio to Louisiana, have long-complained of how expensive their medicine is. The economic toll of the COVID-19 pandemic, with tens of millions of people filing for unemployment benefits, has exacerbated this problem.
Stay-at-home guidelines from state officials across the country at the onset of the pandemic made it near impossible for patients to buy medicine from their usual medical cannabis dispensary. The slow roll-out of medical marijuana dispensaries in many states and the often limited volume and diversity of stock further compounded problems of access for patients with specific needs.
In response, most states moved to deem medical marijuana businesses “essential,” alongside grocery stores and pharmacies, thus allowing them to continue operating. To reduce the risk of exposure to the coronavirus in dispensaries, lawmakers also quickly passed legislation allowing curbside sales and home deliveries as well as waiving registration fees for designated caregivers.
These measures certainly helped medical cannabis patients and caregivers access medicine whilst minimizing the risk of infection, but not to the extent of simply giving patients the option of growing their own cannabis plants at home. With the coronavirus showing no signs of slowing down and with no vaccine in sight, it is essential that lawmakers in states that have already legalized medical cannabis move to allow home cultivation.
What’s standing in their way?
Well, a 2019 report prepared for New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who is pushing for marijuana legalization, courtesy of the New York Medical Cannabis Industry Association (NYMCIA) – which is comprised of some of the country’s largest marijuana companies – would suggest corporate interests play a big role in encouraging state lawmakers to prohibit home cultivation in marijuana legalization legislation.
This report indicates that the problem of homegrow prohibition is not restricted to medical marijuana patients. While home cultivation was originally seen as a necessary part of adult-use marijuana legalization, there is a developing tendency to restrict this in states now looking at full legalization.
This was the case in Illinois, which became the eleventh state to legalize adult-use cannabis on January 1, 2020. But the legislation, crafted by state lawmakers rather than through a ballot initiative process, prohibits recreational users from growing their own plants, to the frustration of many Illinois residents. Initially, Illinois lawmakers wanted to prohibit home cultivation for medical cannabis patients as well, but they ultimately bowed to public pressure.
A recent legalization push in Florida illustrates the motives behind corporate-sponsored marijuana reform initiatives. The Make It Legal Florida campaign, funded by major cannabis industry players MedMen among others, sought to put an adult-use marijuana legalization question on the November 2020 ballot which would prohibit home cultivation. The effort failed to gather enough signatures to the relief of some cannabis legalization supporters who argue legal weed should also be free for everyone to grow, not just the “cannabis cartel.”
The recent anti-cultivation legalization pushes in New York and Florida are worrying given that out of the other ten states which legalized adult-use cannabis before Illinois, only Washington had refused to permit home grow. This makes it all the more important to assert the right to home cultivation as an essential part of any legislation to legalize marijuana. After all, reasons to repeal state prohibitions on home cultivation and embrace full marijuana legalization extend beyond immediate coronavirus considerations for medical marijuana patients.
In this regard, residents and patients in medical cannabis states have been making their case to lawmakers recently with some success. Pressure from the New Hampshire Coalition for Common Sense Marijuana Policy ensure the state legislature passed two separate homegrow bills in February, 2020. In Delaware, lawmakers are currently considering the Patient Right to Grow Act which received a public hearing in the House Public Safety and Homeland Security Committee earlier this year.
At some point, many lawmakers will have to reconcile their current contradictory positions: that marijuana businesses are “essential” but not eligible for federal support in coronavirus relief packages. That marijuana has therapeutic value but can only be grown for profit. The status quo, at least in those states which legalized medical cannabis but don’t permit home grows, makes little sense and is adding to the burden of patients who are already suffering.
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