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Marijuana Dispensaries Offer Essential Services Across The Country. Here's Why It Matters.

Grocery stores, pharmacies, cannabis dispensaries. The historic change for marijuana to be deemed an essential service, explained.

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Not long ago, many people painted marijuana as a gateway drug that governments should never legalize. Now, during the worst virus outbreak for America in a century, governments in states both red and blue are deciding cannabis is as essential as groceries and gasoline.

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It's a historic change for cannabis, brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. In dozens of states and cities across the country, cannabis dispensaries remain open as an essential service. That puts them on par with grocery stores, pharmacies, and banks.

RELATED: As Cities Declare Cannabis An 'Essential Business,' Here's How Businesses Are Rallying To Help Customers

States such as Michigan, Nevada, and California are allowing recreational marijuana sales, although some require curbside pickup or delivery. Medical marijuana dispensaries remain open even in states where recreational sales have halted, such as Illinois and Massachusetts.

It's interesting to consider that 10 years ago, recreational sales were illegal everywhere in the U.S. The New York Times called the decision by officials to keep marijuana dispensaries open an "official recognition that for some Americans, cannabis is as necessary as milk and bread."

The marijuana rush of March 2020 was the first clue things had changed.

Anyone not yet convinced by surveys that show Americans favor cannabis legalization or new legalization laws in Illinois and Michigan got plenty of evidence of weed's popularity in the first half of March.

RELATED: Will The Coronavirus Crisis Help Legalization Efforts In The Future?

As it became apparent that social distancing and closed businesses were about to become a thing - and for who knows how long - people rushed to their local dispensaries in states where recreational and/or medical marijuana is legal.

For example, sales surged as high as 33 percent in one day in Washington. Dispensary sales and delivery orders spiked in Los Angeles and San Francisco. Perhaps this explains why, weeks later, both Washington and California are getting praised for adhering to stay-at-home orders better than many in the country.

Denver, where public officials should have known better, reversed a decision to close dispensaries.

Another sign came from Denver, where Mayor Michael Hancock did not list recreational dispensaries and liquor stores as essential businesses when he ordered businesses closed in the city.

Within minutes, lines began to form at both. Also, people in line did not adhere to the "stay six feet away" rule, thereby exhibiting exactly the kind of behavior Hancock had hoped to stop. By Wednesday, he reversed his order, allowing people to get curbside pickup at dispensaries and liquor stores.

The comparison to liquor made in media reports about the Denver situation is not entirely fair, though. Cannabis means a lot more to people than simply a way to relax and watch Netflix as they sit out the virus in their homes (although, obviously, it's excellent for that, too).

RELATED: Why States Need To 'Flick The Legal Switch' On Cannabis Amid COVID-19

Many people use marijuana as a medication, and not all have medical marijuana cards.

One of the reasons many states decided to let recreational marijuana sales continue is because not everyone who uses marijuana to manage pain or lessen anxiety do so through the medical marijuana system.

As pointed out in Michigan, a state where officials still allow recreational sales via curbside pickup, many adult-use buyers use marijuana for medical purposes. They just have not entered the state system to get a medical card for the purchase of medical marijuana.

"Even a lot of adult-use or recreational users use it for medical purposes," dispensary owner Summer Ransom-Cleveland told NBC 25 in Michigan. She added that dispensaries have easily shifted to curbside service, adding, "You have to be nimble in this business, especially with everything that's going on."

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