Should marijuana shops be eligible for federal relief aid?

The federal government classifies cannabis as a Schedule 1 controlled substance, right up there with LSD, heroin and ecstasy. Yet, many state governments have legalized the drug for medical and recreational uses. The industry is made up of thousands of dispensaries and cultivations that operate like small businesses, employing hundreds of thousands of workers across the country and contributing to local and state sales taxes.

Which begs the question: Should the cannabis industry be eligible for federal relief aid, the same as any other small business, during the coronavirus pandemic

U.S. Reps. Ed Perlmutter, D-Colo., and Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., have introduced a bill that would make legal cannabis businesses eligible for COVID-19 relief aid, including the Paycheck Protection Program and Economic Injury Disaster Loans.

Previous legislation, like the CARES Act, excludes cannabis businesses from aid and loan programs designated for small businesses during the global pandemic.

“Cannabis businesses are major employers and significant contributors to local economies in Colorado and across the country,” Perlmutter said in a news release. “They should receive the same level of support as other legal, legitimate businesses and be eligible for SBA (Small Business Administration) relief funds during this COVID-19 crisis.”

But anti-marijuana groups are pushing back against including cannabis businesses in federal relief spending, including organizations like Smart Approaches to Marijuana. They argue marijuana sales have gone up during the COVID-19 pandemic in states like Colorado, where the business is considered essential and allowed to remain open.

“We have seen numerous reports of marijuana stores with long lines of people stocking up on the drug and have additionally seen states move to keep these stores open,” Kevin Sabet, president of Smart Approaches to Marijuana, said in a statement. “Quite frankly, this presents a unique harm to public health and safety.”

Sales in Durango consistentThe Green House Dispensary in downtown Durango saw a “big boom, with people buying legal ounce limits left and right” at the start of the shutdown, said Melissa Woods, an assistant manager.

“Everyone was scared we were going to close down,” Woods said. After dispensaries were deemed essential businesses and allowed to remain open, there was “a little bit of a recession,” Woods said. The dispensary still had a few out-of-state customers, so workers took every precaution by wearing gloves, Woods said.

With the recent nice weather, Green House Dispensary has had an increase in sales.

“I think the stimulus check had something to do with it, too,” Woods said.

Ken Aab, a manager at Rocky Mountain High Recreational Dispensary, said sales have stayed consistent, with only a slight increase. With no out-of-state visitors from places like Texas, Aab thinks the consistency is because of an increase in local consumption of cannabis products.

“There are other industries that need that relief more,” Aab said. “On the flip side of that coin, the more normal we make marijuana businesses, the better.”

Aab said the dispensary is “a business just like any other business; we pay taxes.”

Prohibition Herb Recreational’s Marketing Director Sayrah Sims said if other smaller businesses are included in COVID-19 relief, cannabis businesses should also be included, especially smaller and independently owned shops.

“It’s been a wild ride,” Sims said in a phone interview. “We might be a little lower, but we’ve held pretty strong with our sales.”

As people fell into the new normal of social distancing in late April, Sims said April 20 – known in cannabis culture as 4/20 and marked as a day for consuming the drug – “was only a little smaller than what it normally would have been.”

Smaller cannabis businesses taking bigger hitProhibition Herb Recreational’s online ordering option has also helped the business stay consistent in sales without people coming through the shop’s doors, Sims said. But she emphasized that smaller shops might not be set up the same way as Prohibition Herb.

Woods said dispensaries around Southwest Colorado suffered from lower-than-anticipated sales on 4/20.

Cannabis businesses should be included in federal relief aid because “it’s a lot of people’s medicine,” Woods said. She helps customers who have trouble sleeping and veterans who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder.

“We can’t give medical advice,” Woods said, “but it helps some people.”

Perlmutter and Blumenauer also wrote a letter, signed by many other members of Congress, asking House leaders to include cannabis businesses in the next COVID-19 package. Rep. Joe Neguse, D-Colo., and Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Colo., also signed the letter.

“State-legal cannabis businesses need access to CARES Act programs to ensure they have the financial capacity to undertake the public health and worker-focused measures experts are urging businesses to take,” Perlmutter and Blumenauer wrote, referring to the 6-feet distance both employees and customers need to maintain.

The U.S. Senate returned to Washington on Monday to begin structuring the next COVID-19 relief bill, which is expected to be another trillion-dollar package.

Emily Hayes is a graduate student at American University in Washington, D.C., and an intern for The Durango Herald.

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