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Beyond the Quarantine Effect: The Multiple Dimensions of Cannabis in the COVID-19 Pandemic

Updated: Aug 13, 2023

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from new contributing editor Nick Johnson. Johnson is a historian and editor based in Fort Collins, Colorado. His book Grass Roots: A History of Cannabis in the American West (2017) is a history of cannabis agriculture that explores the environmental and social dynamics of the nation’s most controversial crop. He also blogs (and occasionally podcasts!) about all things cannabis on his website, Hempirical Evidence.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, millions of people already used cannabis drugs to help relieve depression, anxiety, and boredom. It should be no surprise, then, that cannabis sales are exploding during a pandemic that has forced us all to stay home, stay away from each other, and, if we’re being honest, stay anxious about an uncertain future. But as with most stories about the cannabis plant, there’s more to it than that. Just as it has helped people cope with the realities of COVID-19, cannabis might actually be useful in fighting the disease itself, and trends during the pandemic are working against the black market that has been a bogeyman for the politics of legalization.

By any measure, cannabis is in demand during the COVID-19 pandemic. More legal weed has already been sold in 2020 than in 2019, with sales helped by the fact that cannabis was declared, along with grocery and liquor stores, an “essential industry” in states where it’s legal. With fewer consumers wanting to inhale smoke as a dangerous respiratory disease circulates, edible sales are soaring. The illegal online cannabis industry is also booming, especially in Europe, where few regulated products are available. The pandemic has also changed how people buy cannabis, as they are spending more money in fewer visits to the dispensary.

Cannabis Treatments for COVID?

While cannabis continues to sell as a coping mechanism during the pandemic, there is also some evidence that the plant’s compounds can help fight COVID-19 itself. The novel coronavirus causes something called a cytokine storm, which leads to overwhelming inflammation that can cause tissue damage, organ failure, and in some cases, death. Cannabinoids, including cannabidiol (CBD) have been shown to help inflammation by acting through the body’s endocannabinoid system, a system that helps regulate, among other things, body temperature, appetite, and inflammatory responses. With specific regard to COVID-19, one recent medical paper concluded that:

“The essential role that ECS [endocannabinoid system] plays in immunity, and the modulation of inflammatory cytokine storm following activation of cannabinoid receptors … suggests ECS compounds are targets for the COVID-19 and AIDS syndemics, as well as other immune-related disorders.”

Another recent study looked at the effects of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the cannabinoid that gets people high, on mice suffering from acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS). ARDS can be brought on from a COVID-19 infection. The study found that while exposure to a bacteria that caused ARDS resulted in “acute mortality” among lab mice, “treatment with THC led to 100 percent survival of mice.” Meanwhile, a recent literature review on cannabis’s antiviral properties opined that “CBD is a reasonable candidate to be studied in preclinical coronavirus models.” So while cannabis is obviously an effective coping mechanism, its anti-inflammatory properties appear to hold promise for directly treating COVID-19, especially in an age where the pandemic has forced many in the medical field to look beyond the current paradigm for treatments.

Of course, as with any medicine, concerns have been raised about potential negative effects of cannabis treatments and use. The New York Times recently published a piece warning of the cardiovascular effects of smoking marijuana, and it doesn’t take a medical professional to know that increased weed-smoking during quarantine is problematic for some people, especially those with pre-existing mental health conditions or who are at risk for substance misuse.

Careful Shopping Cuts into Black-Market Pot

Before the pandemic, there were still many consumers willing to buy cannabis from the black market, whether for convenience or price competition with the heavily taxed legal industry. However, COVID-19 has made people more cautious about their shopping habits, as more choose curbside pickup or delivery or obsessively hand-sanitize when they do enter a store. Unsurprisingly, this has extended to the cannabis sphere, where the general anxiety over coronavirus has led people to buy more from dispensaries—where they know the products and stores are subject to not only regulations on cannabis but also current public health rules—and take fewer risks on black-market cannabis. More people are also signing up for medical marijuana rosters, where they are available.

Importantly, this isn’t happening everywhere; in California, for instance, black-market pot is estimated to account for 80 percent of the total cannabis sales (California’s black market continues to be a unique, intractable problem). Still, it seems like the pandemic has the potential to cripple the black market for cannabis, at least in the United States. That, coupled with marijuana’s status as an essential product, would seem to be a major political win for the nation’s cannabis movement, which has struggled to argue that legal weed is a cure for the illicit industry and all the shady business done therein.

Still a Useful Plant

In all, to a pot historian, the multiple dimensions of cannabis during the COVID-19 pandemic aren’t exactly surprising—today, as in ages past, the plant has proven itself to be useful in a number of ways for people in a challenging situation. In particular, if cannabis-based treatments do pan out, it might be a very lucky thing that COVID-19 hit during a global revival of cannabis’s place in modern medicine. At the very least, everyone who burns some legal, regulated green to avoid the quarantine blues must feel lucky they are weathering a pandemic in the age of cannabis legalization.

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