D.C. Latest to Declare Medical Pot Essential In Outbreak

Law360 (March 25, 2020, 8:11 PM EDT) -- Following a pattern set by other state and local leaders who implemented widespread business closures to curb the spread of COVID-19, Washington, D.C., Mayor Muriel Bowser declared the district's medical marijuana dispensaries essential in an executive order that went into effect Wednesday night.

The order, which was released Tuesday, lists the district's medical cannabis sellers and cultivators among the public health operations that will be permitted to remain open as nonessential businesses are ordered to close.

While adult-use recreational marijuana use is legal in D.C., there is no regulated market for selling it, and therefore no dispensaries.

Every state that has taken similar steps to contain the virus has deemed medical marijuana businesses essential, on a par with grocery stores and pharmacies, while often tweaking regulations to allow for, or mandate, curbside sale and deliveries. Industry attorneys say the trend is a welcome sign of recognition among government leaders.

"It seems to be the prevailing wisdom that these are essential businesses. I don't think that would have happened even two or three years ago," Kathryn Ashton, co-chair of the cannabis practice at Dentons, told Law360 on Wednesday. "There's now an acceptance that folks are seeking medical cannabis to treat illnesses."

An order by Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker, which went into effect Tuesday, was the first to draw a line between medical marijuana dispensaries, which were deemed essential, and adult-use recreational sellers, which were not.

Other jurisdictions with legalized recreational marijuana, including California, Illinois and Michigan, issued orders allowing both markets to continue operating.

Industry advocates told Law360 that the two markets' supply chains are often intertwined and that many adult-use customers are actually buying the drug for medical reasons, making such distinctions unworkable.

Karen O'Keefe, director of state policies for pro-legalization advocacy group Marijuana Policy Project, told Law360 that many patients turn to adult-use cannabis because of the difficulties involved in securing a doctor's recommendation per requirements of state medical programs. She pointed to factors such as lack of insurance or federal policy barring U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs physicians from recommending marijuana use for military veterans.

"In practice, if marijuana is only available to registered patients, it will shut down access for a lot of people using it medicinally," O'Keefe said Monday.

--Editing by Janice Carter Brown.

For a reprint of this article, please contact reprints@law360.com.

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