The Coronavirus crisis has shown just how unprepared we all were for a pandemic. To be fair, though, the last time we faced something quite like this was 100 years ago. The most we can do now is try to mitigate the spread of the virus and pick up the pieces when we emerge on the other side.
At the moment, the federal and state governments have implemented various policies to help flatten the curve and reduce the virus’s impact. These range from promoting self-isolation and social distancing to closing down all but the most essential businesses. However, according to Steve Hawkins, Marijuana Policy Project Executive Director, one public policy that will ultimately undermine the Coronavirus response is marijuana criminalization.
Although some police departments and prosecutors have already determined that prosecuting low-level offenses such as cannabis possession is counterintuitive and puts police, prosecutors and the public at risk, there have been news reports that indicate arrests for marijuana possession have continued.
“As governments work to minimize the negative impacts of COVID-19, it’s clear that punitive cannabis laws and unnecessarily strict regulations serve as far more of a hindrance than a help,” he says. It greatly increases the risk of exposure to the virus for both the users and law enforcement personnel.
Hawkins stresses that keeping the virus out of the country’s infamously overcrowded prisons should be a top priority, especially given how quickly it would spread within the inmates. “It would be a disaster if the Coronavirus becomes prevalent in America’s overcrowded jails and prisons,” he says.
“Criminal justice reform organizations have called for the release of low-risk inmates such as those convicted of cannabis offenses. This step should be taken as swiftly as possible to protect all staff and inmates at correctional facilities.”
The virus has also had a catastrophic effect on the economy, with more than 20 million Americans losing their jobs in a little over a month. Most experts project tough times ahead, with the IMF stating that the crisis is the worst economic decline since the Great Depression of the 1930s.
The state-legal cannabis sector employs more than 200,000 people, a lot of whom are still working after cannabis was deemed essential. The industry could help kickstart the economy through tax revenue as well as by providing gainful employment.
“As we all take time to re-evaluate our nation’s public policy priorities, cannabis and criminal justice should be more important parts of the conversation,” states Hawkins.
“Policymakers, including state legislators, governors and members of Congress, should take advantage of this opportunity to acknowledge that cannabis prohibition does not protect public health and safety, and they should support enacting reasonable policy alternatives on both a temporary and permanent basis.”
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