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Cannabis Dispensaries Are Now Essential Businesses in California

By Alexander Beadle

Published: Mar 25, 2020   
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On Thursday, March 19, California Governor Gavin Newsom issued a stay-at-home order to residents in the state’s latest attempt to stay the spread of the coronavirus.

The order tells Californians to only leave their homes when absolutely necessary during the pandemic. It also identified 16 “critical infrastructure sectors,” such as healthcare and agriculture, which are allowed to continue operations as normal while other non-essential businesses are to close.

The issuance of the order caused huge uncertainty within the state’s cannabis industry – the single largest cannabis market in the world – as the order never explicitly stated whether cannabis companies would be included in this list of essential business.

In response, 16 counties and cities from across California issued their own guidance, classifying cannabis as an essential industry and asking all cannabis businesses to continue their operations. A public order from the City of Los Angeles, issued the same Thursday, said that the city considered all cannabis dispensaries and related services to be included within the essential healthcare sector, and so should remain open.

Now, in a clarification document published this weekend, Gov. Newsom has included cannabis retailers and other workers in the supply chain supporting the cannabis retail business, as “essential” under the official state policy.

“Because cannabis is an essential medicine for many residents, licensees may continue to operate at this time so long as their operations comply with local rules and regulations,” said the California’s Bureau of Cannabis Control in a separate media notice.

“Any licensee that continues to operate must adopt social distancing and anti-congregating measures and must follow the CDC's interim guidance for businesses and employers to plan and respond to coronavirus disease at all times.”

The argument for cannabis as an essential business

Medical cannabis has been legally available on prescription in California since 1996, with the state’s also choosing to legalize recreational cannabis use in January 2018.

But this new classification of cannabis business as essential makes no distinction between recreational cannabis businesses and medical cannabis dispensaries – all valid license holders in the state are allowed to remain open during lockdown if they so choose. And so the question becomes why, after just two years of operating, are recreational cannabis businesses now being considered essential to continued life in the state?

One of the major concerns voiced before the issuance of the clarification notice was that, in the two years since recreational cannabis was legalized, many longtime medical cannabis patients have let their formal prescriptions lapse, meaning that adult-use cannabis retail outlets have now also become essential to patients.

Industry insiders also argued that closing these outlets could result in former patients going back to their healthcare providers to get new recommendations, which would be an extra burden on physicians at a time when the healthcare system is already under stress.

“The fact that cannabis retail has been considered an essential service, and will continue [to trade] has raised some eyebrows, but is understandable from my perspective,” Akwasi Owusu-Bempah, an assistant professor of criminology at the University of Toronto, told Analytical Cannabis.

Alexander Beadle

Science Writer

Alexander Beadle has been working as a freelance science writer since 2017 and has covered the cannabis industry for Analytical Cannabis since 2018. He has also written for our sister publication, Technology Networks, and the cannabis industry consultant firm Prohibition Partners, among others. Alexander holds a Master's in Materials Chemistry from the University of St. Andrews, where he won a Chemistry Purdie scholarship, and conducted research into zeolite crystal growth mechanisms and the action of single-molecule transistors.


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