As Congress scrambles to reach a consensus on how to help Americans caught in the financial fallout of COVID-19, a coalition of marijuana industry trade groups is urging federal lawmakers not to forget about the hundreds of thousands of workers in state-legal cannabis industries.
Legal marijuana now employs an estimated 240,000 people in the U.S. but, because cannabis remains federally illegal, marijuana businesses remain cut off from nearly all benefits at the federal level, including emergency relief funds.
In a letter sent Friday to leaders of the House and Senate, major cannabis industry associations called on lawmakers to remove those restriction and ensure that state-legal cannabis businesses can qualify for assistance.
“Our members follow strict regulations, create jobs, generate billions of dollars in tax revenue—including federal corporate tax revenue—and act as good corporate citizens,” the groups said. “Yet it appears as if these businesses will not be eligible for the same loans available to other businesses in this country at risk due to the global pandemic.”
The letter was sent jointly by the National Cannabis Industry Association, National Cannabis Roundtable, Minority Cannabis Business Association, Global Alliance for Cannabis Commerce and Cannabis Trade Federation.
“The ineligibility of cannabis businesses for disaster assistance loans is especially inequitable given that these same cannabis businesses are required to comply with other coronavirus-related measures, such as paid sick leave coverage,” the organizations wrote. “We are not seeking special treatment for state-legal cannabis businesses. We only seek to have them treated on an equal level as all other job-generating, tax-paying companies in this country.”
In a separate announcement on Friday, the nonprofit group NORML said in a blog post that the organization has been reaching out “to our numerous allies on Capitol Hill” to ensure that “discriminatory practices do not apply to those in the industry seeking unemployment benefits [for cannabis workers] during these uncertain times.”
“Given the tremendous amount of uncertainty in the broader economy,” NORML Political Director Justin Strekal said in a statement, “the hundreds of thousands of American workers who are employed by the state-legal marijuana industry must be respected and protected by the emergency actions being taken by elected officials.”
Cannabis Workers, Unemployment Insurance, and the Small Business Administration: What You Need to Know https://t.co/Tt2y2ovVHg
— NORML (@NORML) March 20, 2020
Programs already in place should extend at least some benefits to marijuana workers, NORML said in the post. In addition to workers qualifying for state-level unemployment benefits, the cannabis industry could see help from the congressional Families First Coronavirus Response Act.
The act, signed into law this week, directs federal funds to state governments to help with COVID-19 efforts. NORML said that after conferring with experts, it believes the act “provides the individual states with the authority to decide for themselves which industries are legally eligible to receive benefits.”
But unless lawmakers amend current rules, state-legal cannabis companies won’t receive a dime of disaster relief aid provided by the federal government to other small businesses. The federal Small Business Administration (SBA) is prohibited from providing financial assistance to industries that are illegal under federal law.
NORML said that it “will continue to work with our federal allies to call for an end for such discriminatory practices against the cannabis industry and those whose livelihoods depend upon it.”
One way to address the issue, NORML said, would be to pass pending legislation introduced last year by Rep. Nydia Velázquez (D-NY), who chairs the House Small Business Committee. The bill, H.R. 3540, would remove cannabis from the Controlled Substances Act and prohibit SBA from denying services to marijuana-related businesses.
That legislation was introduced just days after federal lawmakers heard about challenges facing small cannabis businesses at a hearing. Language from the bill was later included in the Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvestment, and Expungement (MORE) Act, which was approved by the House Judiciary Committee last year.
“Now is not the time for Congress to think small,” Strekal, of NORML, urged as lawmakers continued debating how to best address the crisis. “Including Chairwoman Velazquez’s proposal to have the SBA support small cannabis businesses would protect both American jobs and the consumers that they serve.”
Meanwhile, the coronavirus pandemic is also impacting drug policy reform efforts across the country. Lawmakers in New York have said in recent days that the effort to legalize marijuana for adults may be delayed due to coronavirus. Ballot initiative campaigns in California and Washington, D.C., have asked local officials for permission to gather signatures online. And in Nebraska, activists pushing to legalize medical marijuana in the state have announced they’ve temporarily suspended their signature gathering campaign.
“We look forward to the opportunity to get back out there to help Nebraskans create meaningful change for each other,” Nebraskans for Medical Marijuana posted to Facebook on Thursday, “and we wish you and your loved ones health and peace of mind.”
Read the cannabis industry letter to congressional leaders below: