Marijuana dispensary in Spring Valley
A marijuana dispensary in Spring Valley.

Under Gov. Gavin Newsom’s stay-at-home order many businesses have been forced to close, except those deemed essential, such as healthcare and grocery stores. The specific guidelines outlining what is essential include marijuana retailers, farmers, distributors, manufacturers, and testing labs under the healthcare sector.

From a public health standpoint, why is pot deemed an essential business during the COVID-19 pandemic?

After all, there is still much we don’t know about the new coronavirus. The virus causing COVID-19 attacks the lungs, which could present a serious threat to individuals who smoke marijuana. And we do know that marijuana smoke and vaping open the lungs up to increased respiratory infections.

The American Lung Association states on its website: “Smoke in general is harmful to lung health. Smoke from marijuana combustion has been shown to contain many of the same toxins, irritants and carcinogens as tobacco smoke.”

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Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic San Diego County had 48 local cases of e-cigarette or vaping product use-associated lung injury, known by the acronym EVALI. Researchers are still figuring out what is causing EVALI, yet we know many of the cases were due to vaping marijuana products. While COVID-19 and EVALI are not related, they both have adverse effects on the lungs.

San Diego County has experienced an 830% increase in emergency-room visits with diagnosis related to marijuana in the past 10 years. During this pandemic we need to decrease emergency-room visits. That’s another reason to close pot shops.

A great percentage of emergency mental health visits are associated with marijuana. We need to eliminate preventable emergencies like that to free our hospital capacity.

The surgeon general has stated that there is no such thing as medical marijuana. If you have a medical condition, seek a licensed physician, nurse practitioner, or physician assistant.

Historically the marijuana industry has defied federal, state, and local laws, yet it is expected to comply with CDC guidelines for social distancing. And that, by the way, is the only guidance we have received from the Bureau of Cannabis Control regarding operating standards for pot retailers during the pandemic.

Given these facts, California needs to take another look at the essential businesses policy and justify why marijuana is more important than public health.

Joe Eberstein is the program manager for the San Diego County Marijuana Prevention Initiative.